Google has unveiled its much anticipated desktop search software, giving it a first-mover advantage over rivals such as Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, which have all identified the area as the next search battleground. However, Kevin Murphy argues that the development of a desktop search engine raises some potentially challenging security issues…
Google Desktop is a free download that, when installed, indexes local documents such as emails, office documents and instant messenger conversations and then allows users to search them, with split-second response times, via their browser.
By getting to the market first, the company could develop a level of user lock-in before its rivals launch their equivalent software. Ask Jeeves is expected to be next, launching its desktop search before the end of the year.
Microsoft has also said it intends to improve its Windows search software, but it’s not currently clear if this will be delivered separately before Longhorn, the next major Windows operating system release.
Google Desktop indexes pretty much everything the typical Windows user does that involves text, including Outlook and Outlook Express email, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, text and other files, AOL IM, and encrypted HTTP.
Because the content is already indexed before a query is executed, the speed is comparable to a web search. Before now, most PC users were limited to the painfully slow Windows search function or to little-known third-party applications.
The Google Desktop search experience blurs the lines between the web and the desktop. While the software uses the browser as its interface, and has the same look and feel as google.com, desktop searches are generated locally, not via the web.
However, when the software is installed, it does things locally that change how the online service appears and functions, and this could be confusing to the average Windows user. It displays local results alongside web results when users search from google.com, for example. It also creates a Desktop tab on the Google homepage, alongside News, Groups and Images, that lets users carry a web search back to the desktop.
Aware of privacy and security concerns, Google says that the only times its servers are aware of what the user is searching for on their desktop is when they launch a desktop search from the web page, or vice versa. That feature can be turned off.
Users can also configure the software to not archive certain types of document. Also, they can block web pages by domain, or by whether they are encrypted or not, from being cached and indexed locally.
However, the tool appears powerful enough and could become sufficiently widespread that there will be lots of shocking misuses reported over the coming months, much like there was when Google’s web search gained popularity.
Then, people discovered they could dig up all kinds of dirt on each other due to Google’s breadth and accuracy. Now, it’s only a matter of time before people using shared PCs start getting caught out by forgetting Google Desktop has indexed their private stuff.
This could be exacerbated by the fact that deleted files are not automatically deleted from the local Google index and local cache. Users have to find the deleted item via the search tool and tell the software to remove the offending link.
On the security side of things, it’s probably only a matter of time before a worm or Trojan, once it has compromised a PC, uses Google Desktop to quickly find credit card numbers or other personal information before transmitting it to hackers.
It’s not currently clear whether Google will attempt to monetize the desktop software perhaps by delivering ads to users’ PCs, or whether it will be used as a customer loyalty tool that drives traffic to the Google website, where advertising can be found.