A few years ago, we were told that desktop search applications were going to change the face personal information management. Google Desktop was released in late 2004, only a few months before Apple introduced Spotlight as a key feature of the new version of OS X. When Windows Vista finally shipped, it included a similar feature called Instant Search. As Google brings order to the billions of pages on the web, desktop search was supposed to bring order to your files, emails, and photos.
Now, more than 3 years later, have things really changed?
I’ve been focusing on desktop search in my master’s research, and I’ve noticed that not many people are actually using these tools. Even though I am doing research in the area, I often find myself resorting to the tried-and-true hierarchical file system.
Part of the problem is that the search algorithms pretty much suck. Remember web search before Google? When the highest-ranked page was the one that contained the most repetitions of your keywords? Desktop search apps suffer from similar problems. The algorithm doesn’t know that a file I created should rank higher than some sample code that came with Python. It doesn’t realize that a message I received from a mailing list is less relevant than the email from my supervisor. We don’t yet have the equivalent of PageRank on the desktop.
Another reason desktop search hasn’t taken over is that the problem has changed. Really, it’s not about desktop search. It’s about personal information search. I mean personal information in the sense of personal information management — the information items (files, emails, IM conversations, bookmarks, etc.) that we use in our day-to-day tasks. What has changed in the past few years is that more and more of this information is stored in web applications. This presents a challenge for desktop search applications. Google Desktop can search GMail, but that’s an exception — most desktop search applications are restricted to searching things on your computer. I need something that will search GMail, my Facebook inbox, my Flickr and Facebook photos, wiki pages, Backpack, etc.
But while web applications are the downfall of desktop search, they are also the reason why we need personal information search. With our important data being stored in so many different places, each with its own particular organization methods, we don’t really have another alternative.
What do you think? Are you using desktop search? What’s your preferred application, and what do you love and hate about it?