Tuesday, April 25

Desktop Search is Dead, Long Live Desktop Search

Greg Linden wrote in a recent post, "Using the desktop to improve search." In it, he writes:
But is it really natural to go to a web browser to find information? Or should information be readily available from the desktop and sensitive to the context of your current task?

I expect we some day will see information retrieval become a natural part of workflow. Search will be integrated into the desktop.
I disagree, but not because I think his premise is wrong. Instead, I believe the browser will become the platform for most of our tasks and search will integrated into these browser based applications. As more and more applications migrate to the web (calendar, e-mail, word processing, multimedia editing and sharing, file storage, etc...) contextual and implicit search enabled web applications / services will become more prevalent in the way Greg describes. A first step in this direction is Yahoo! Contextual Search, which uses the surrounding paragraphs of text on a webpage to find "Related Info."

I think Microsoft and others will skip a generation of desktop search software and instead focus on better search in their web service applications. See my previous post on Live Drive and GDrive. Why invest lots of money creating a search enabled desktop file system when the goal is to get users to switch to Live Drive? Instead, invest the resources in the new system to make the service more appealing and drive user adoption.

One problem I see with desktop search is that alot of the really cool contextual features require tight application integration without impacting application performance. Desktop search is today hindered by OS and application reliability and performance.

Application and OS metadata reliability was a another major issue highlighted in SiS, which Greg references. I've seen Susan Dumais give her SiS presentation twice, once to the UC Berkeley lecture series, and once in real life at a search conference (she must be so sick of it, she's probably done it hundreds of times!). Incorrect metadata was a major theme in her presentation. For example, one of her examples related to Microsoft Word documents and searching by author. The problem they found was that one person wrote a large amount of the companies' documents. It turns out that this person wrote the word templates everyone used and so became listed as their author! And then there are bigger issues like files / email moving (there is still a GDS bug where it doesn't track moved outlook e-mails or files).

In an age of spyware and adware people are sick of software hogging system resources. Correctly or not, desktop search has a bad rep when it comes to performance. Microsoft's indexing service is notorious for slowing systems down. I have had co-workers complain about even GDS hogging resources. Moving the systems to the network allows indexing to be handled by independent resources and so the user applications aren't hindered by the indexing overhead and users can focus on doing what they want and not waiting for the computer to respond. Searching on a highly parallelized is faster than it ever could be on a single desktop hard drive.

However, it will be some time before we have fully functional web platforms. There are still major barriers in terms of cost and resources, namely bandwidth. In the meantime, desktop search will continue to be important. Apple has shown this in Tiger with "Spotlight" and Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft will all continue to release desktop search applications. It is clear that "implicit queries" and push-oriented search systems will be an interesting and growing part of search in the next generation of web applications.