In this entry, Greg Linden seconds Joe Wilcox’ contention that desktop search is not likely to be of interest to mainstream users. Are they right? I think it depends on how one defines “mainstream users.” If that term is intended as a reference to a parent who uses the PC as an overdesigned email terminal or for limited browsing, then I concur, the answer is likely no. The benefit of being able to find emails or search web cache – provided the tool has the technical ability to do so – wouldn’t justify the overhead of running a fulltime indexing tool.
But I think that definition is a vast oversimplication which ignores a wealth of potential applications for desktop search technology. Case in point? Students. Whether it’s on an elementary, high school or college level, students are increasingly turning to the web for research purposes. Notes are often taken on laptops. Papers are churned out one after another. How does one crawl through that mess of information? Back when I was a kid, and we walked fifty miles to school – uphill both ways – it meant opening every document to see if it had what we needed. It meant repeating web searches over and over. Email? Well, while it technically did exist, I never really got the hang of it while in school. Regardless, desktop search would have been very welcome to this former student. Less time searching would have meant more time at the Purple Pub.
And students are hardly the only use case. There are thousands of small businesses – realtors, for example, that generate tremendous volumes of electronic documentation. I’d be willing to bet that if you walked into any realtor and told them you could merely type in a customer’s name and return every document and email related to their search, they’d be ecstatic.
That last point, I think, may also be the most important. Both Greg and Joe discuss the tools primarily for their ability to search individual content types. Greg says:
But I’m not sure I see faster e-mail search as making it any more compelling. Even with my gigabytes of archived mail, e-mail search is fast enough. There’s got to be more here.
And Joe says:
I’m still not convinced all this rush for desktop search delivers consumers what they really want or need. Don the dad probably could find that letter he wrote to Susie’s teacher in the “My Documents” folder; no search tool required. A media player manages his music just fine.
Both of these miss the important point, I think, which is that while desktop search should focus on searching each content type better than available tools because that experience right now is terrible, that’s only a part of the equation. Just as valuable – perhaps more valuable, to me – is how the desktop search tools obviate the need for a search interfaces per content type. I don’t want to search documents, PDFs, IMs, emails, etc separately – it’s a waste of time.
The aggregation of the search results in a single interface amplifies the search value by informally relating disparate but interconnected content. The realtor can search on “Jones” and get proposals, closing documents, and emails all in the same place. The student can search on “Council of Nicea” and get class notes, websites, and emails from a fellow student, all in the same place.
That, to me, is the ultimate promise of desktop search. The ad-hoc query results served up by desktop tools not only search for what we’re looking for, but may bring together relevant material we forgot we had. That’s also why the Beagle/Dashboard combination while raw is the most interesting one going, for me. They’re looking beyond search to presentation. Ambitious, but interesting.