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Ask Jeeves and Microsoft squeeze onto bandwagon

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Desktop Searches are nothing like buses. Not even buses arrive five at a time. But with Ask Jeeves and Microsoft both launching new desktop searches to rival Google's, and with Yahoo! and AOL running around shouting about how they will have one as well early next year, you have to wonder whether the whole IT industry has gone barking mad.

Such is the market-smashing impact of Google. We saw it with Gmail, when Google announced out the blue that it would pull the rug out from under the Webmail market by offering 1GB of storage for free. It's happened again with desktop searches.

Microsoft isn't big on irony but even it can see that if Windows' search tools weren't so awful there wouldn't be a desktop search market for Google to dominate. It has broken with tradition and stuck a beta out for public consumption, so concerned it is that Google will have stolen all the customers by the time it gets there. It's not often you get to see Microsoft hitch up its skirt and run, so enjoy it while you can.

Microsoft

It has produced a slick update to its MSN toolbar that lets you search through most of your files on your hard drives. Microsoft hasn't released a full list of file formats supported, leading some with suspicious minds to conclude it may have missed out various proprietary formats used by competitors. It will however search pdf files by content, which is something Google's doesn't do. Why Google doesn't is a bit of a mystery, especially since it pioneered searching for pdf content online.

Maybe it's concerned that businesses will worry about the security implications if company pdfs start becoming swiftly accessible. Oh look, they already are, courtesy of Gartner. Microsoft, as ever, is less worried about security than it is about market control.

Anyway, you know about Google's product. Microsoft's does the same thing but it only works with Internet Explorer and Windows. The clever pitch is that it is using its Windows know-how to make a better product. Who knows, people may believe it.

But the great advantage to Microsoft of course is that it can plug its desktop search every time someone wants any updates for Explorer, or Windows, or Hotmail, or whatever. Because it is something you have to download and install rather than something which is just there (the browser versus search engine comparison), Microsoft looks certain to grab a good chunk of the market.

In fact, desktop searches currently live in a grey area between browsers and search engines since they connect with both. Microsoft uses its software already on your computer to run a search, while Google use its own site. Users will be very familiar with both.

Ask Jeeves

Which brings us to Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves, you would think, would use its website rather than a piece of software on your PC to do the search. In fact, it's gone the other way, using technology it picked up from an acquisition of Tukaroo in June. It can be tied in the site later on though, the company promises, so presumably it is watching to see what happens with Microsoft and Google.

What it offers above the other two is sort-of-better security - it lets you define which chunks of your hard drive you do and don't want it to look in. Plus it provides a neat little preview screen of the file you've selected. Although if it's your own hard drive you're searching, you'd think you'd already have a good idea what the file was, because you were searching for it.

The truth of it though is that Ask Jeeves is doing it because not to have a desktop search tool will soon mark out a search engine as deficient in some way. People will go to a competitor.

Yahoo!

As for Yahoo!, well it too has gone for a standalone bit of software. Which, while you don't have to open a browser to get at it, does mean it doesn't tie in as neatly with where it exists in people's minds - on the Internet. It is thought to be faster, but it only works on Windows at the moment, so Google looks set to take complete control of the Mac and Linux users. Yahoo!'s download is also likely to be quite big, which may be another factor that works against it.

AOL

And finally AOL's desktop search. Not alot is known about it at the moment, save that it has signed a deal with Copernic - which is the real specialist in this area, although because it doesn't have the same massive profile of Google, Microsoft et al, it has been largely forgotten.

In fact, you have to feel a little sorry for Copernic, which has had a brilliant desktop search bit of software for ages.

Its future however, now that everyone has got in on the act, may be in acting as AOL's supplier. AOL has been talking about a new super browser it is developing and so Copernic could well take a big role in developments. It would be enough to retire on.

Who's the best?

You will note of course that we haven't actually said how good all these desktop searches are, or attempted to draw any comparison between them. And that is probably because, at the moment and quite possibly in the foreseeable future, it's not really the issue.

This is brand territory. It's a new feature for people to have and it will take a while for us to get picky about searching their own hard drives. It's just nice at the moment to be able to do it at all following years of frustrating operating system chugging. Plus, it's all in flux. Features will be pulled in and pulled out with great haste for the next year or so. Then, at the end of it, people will probably proudly state that they use Google's or Microsoft's or whatever.

Quality is not the issue here, which is a real shame for Copernic because without a doubt it has the best desktop search out there at the moment. ®

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