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How are we going to search our hard disks now?

Stuff your cloud, we want proper desktop search

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Regular readers will know my occasional whinges about the sad state of the market for email clients – these generate hundreds of emails and comments. But there is another product category that is looking decidedly shabby these days. It is one which every so often becomes fashionable for a few weeks, and then goes on to suffer years of neglect.

As reported, Google's content retrieval application Google Desktop is being axed, joining a growing list of search abandonware. And that is a pity, because the search engines built into Windows and Mac OS X come up short, while the professional and enterprise search software remains hugely expensive and out of reach for most people.

That leaves us a bit stuffed. Now there's even less choice in the "affordable" (aka "expensible") category. It's only natural that vendors who have a decent product want to maximise the revenue for it, and stop thinking about chasing transactions worth tens of dollars for deals in the thousands. Autonomy went from a desktop product featuring a cute, cartoony dog to enterprise in a few months.

What's the problem, then? Well, the system-level search engines in Windows and Mac can't be faulted for their speed, but they typically deluge the user in hits by default. They also fail to handle the slightly more complex queries we need either gracefully, or at all. And they don't show information in context, which is vital.

Both are great at providing quick access to applications or settings, but give them thousands of similar articles to chew over and they fall short. Traditionally there's been a niche market catering for punters who don't need and can't afford a full blown server-based, [ enterprise | document management | knowledge retrieval | insert jargon here ] system.

For a few months after Google's IPO back in 2004 and 2005, we were suddenly deluged with free alternatives. Google itself launched its own http-based desktop search – Desktop. Rivals rushed to emulate. Ask.com bundled Copernic, and Yahoo bundled X1.

Google's Desktop turned out to be not half bad, but it was an early example of Google's creepy and clumsy approach to privacy. The company clearly wanted to serve contextual ads next to your private data – Marissa Mayer admitted as much – and it opted you in by default.

Enthusiasm gradually waned and Google Desktop – which few people realised was still around – is formally being terminated on the 14th. Google implies, on its company blog, that the OS search engines are good enough, and that "there has been a significant shift from local to cloud-based storage and computing".

Well, stuff that. Many of the documents that I need indexed are never going to breathe the clean, fresh air outside of an encrypted disk partition – let alone gambol about in the Chocolate Factory. Which leaves a local client as the only option.

Surprisingly, some of the stalwarts are still around. dtSearch, which I consider the standard by which all others should be judged, is 20 years old this year, but remains the priciest, at $199. X1 (also Windows only) is fast, and cheaper, at £30.95, but doesn't handle large files very gracefully. Copernic has a couple of desktop search clients ranging from free ad-supported (which is too irritating to use) to $49.95 and $59.95 versions. On the Mac, CMT's FoxTrot does the job ably with Personal (€29.99) and Pro (€99.99) versions.

Disappointingly, the open-source world has its share of search abandonware too: Beagle is no longer developed; and Tracker shouldn't be – with its EU-funding and waffle about being a "semantic data storage" supporting "W3C standards for RDF ontologies" you know it isn't supposed to be used seriously for work, and never will make the grade. Stringi looks very promising, but again needs new work on the UI. For this, developers need only do what they usually do when solving a UI issue in the open-source way: just copy one that works. Please.

Suggestions and comments welcome by email, or below. ®

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