Why desktop search will give way to personal information search

February 7, 2008 ⋅ 3 Comments »

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?


  1. e - February 7, 2008:

    I've tried desktop search on a Windows box (with Google search) and an Ubuntu box (with Beagle). Neither really helped me out. I don't want a generic search that wanders through all of my "stuff," because I usually know about the type of thing I care about. I search in IM conversations because I know I'm looking for something in IM. I grep for files because my hierarchically organized file system keeps similar things in the same part of the file tree - to find similar stuff, I just have to grep from a higher location in the tree. There's just too much noise in a generic search.

    Desktop search could be improved if we could add weights to each blob of information. Files that I open often should be considered more important than files I seldom open. Longer IM conversations should be considered more important than short conversations.

    The idea of an across-the-board search doesn't really interest me. I always know the medium of the stuff that I'm looking for (IM/email/source code/files). I'm more interested in seeing improvements in how I can search within the medium. Why can't I grep for images yet? If I want to find structured data (like a phone number, email address, or physical address), why can't I just search for all instances of that data type?

  2. Chris - February 7, 2008:

    Do we not need some kind of metadata standard? If all the web applications published information about the pieces of data in some commonly accepted format, then search wouldn't be restricted by the type of data or the location of the data.

    I know it's not trivial - but it seems like the only way we'd ever get so many different types of information talking the same language. Most of the time, I don't want to consider what kind of file or application I stored a piece of information.

    As it stands, nothing really works for me. I have too much of my life stored online, in different places. I use Spotlight on occasion, and it works fine to an extent. If I'm hunting for an mp3 I know the title of, or an application I've lost track of.


  3. Steve Carter - March 18, 2009:

    I looked at various desktop search applications and did not find the idea appealing. I generally have an idea of where on my computer, or in my backup files, a piece of information might be found, so, as someone said above, I don't want to look through everything.

    I've recently started using TextFilterer (www.edwardsoft.com) and find it suits my needs. I'm usually searching for a text string, most often in my journals (text files that go back to the early 70's), and TextFilterer allows me to use proximity search, regex, etc.