November 6, 2003 5:50 PM PST

Google tests desktop search

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Search company Google is testing software that lets people navigate the Web without opening up an Internet browser, placing itself in a field that Microsoft has designs on--desktop search.

On Thursday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search company debuted the Google Deskbar. The downloadable software for users of Microsoft's Windows operating system puts a Google search box in the desktop taskbar. Using the free tool, people can search for information on the Web while in a Word document or e-mail application. But instead of launching a browser, the Deskbar will display results in a small window in the lower right of the screen.

"The Google Deskbar is a search utility for the PC so that people can search Google in a faster and new way," said John Piscitello, product manager for Google Deskbar and the Google Toolbar. "It works from any application at any time on Windows."


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Cutting out the browser for search tasks is a goal of numerous other search providers--most formidably Microsoft, which dominates the desktop. Google could be headed for a duel with the software giant as Microsoft builds new search technology that bridges the needs of its home and business customers and binds its various applications through Longhorn, its next version of Windows.

It's just an experiment for now, but the Deskbar could eventually further ingratiate Google with people by letting them perform workaday, home-computing tasks without having to fire up a Web browser. Deskbar is particularly suited to finding simple information--for example, movie reviews, definitions and stock quotes--than more complicated searches.

Piscitello said the experimental software germinated fairly quickly in Google Labs, the company's developmental playground, as the company's user interface designers are always scouting for ways to improve search.

The Deskbar test is being launched just as Google is widely thought to be exploring options for an initial public offering. In the last five years, it has gathered a wide following for its simple, relevant search results and built a lucrative business by selling related keyword ads.

Digging deeper
Matthew Berk, a director at Jupiter Research, said the Deskbar software is further sign of Google's ubiquity and illustrates how search will evolve.

"This is an attempt by Google to dig deeper into the natural work flow of existing and future users," Berk said. "Search won't be about firing up your browser, going to a search engine and typing in your keywords--it will be built into the fabric of our work. The game is to work yourself as deep as possible in that natural work flow."

While Microsoft dominates software for employee work flow with its Outlook, Word and Windows desktop products, he added, Google has slowly come to dominate Web search, having worked itself into the lexicon as synonymous with "search," for example.

Both companies are jockeying for control of users' habits, Berk said. "He who owns habit is in control," he noted, adding that for Google, an extension of its search reach means more opportunity for advertising revenue.

One feature in the Deskbar tool that could help Google's pitch is a global command key ("control, alt, G,") that lets people search a term they have highlighted in a Word document, e-mail or within a browser page automatically. People can perform other tricks with the software, including tailoring Deskbar searches to Google News by using the command "control, N."

Google is not the first to innovate in this area, but its tool may have more clout. Dave's Quick Search Deskbar, for example, is a similar tool that has been available for more than a year.

For now, Google's technology only works on PCs running Windows 98 and higher and using Internet Explorer 5.5 and higher. Google developed its Deskbar by adapting a Microsoft API (application programming interface) for the IE Web browser. The API allows the display of a minibrowser in the bottom right-hand corner of a PC screen.

Tailored search
The Google Deskbar can be customized to search company intranets or specific Web sites, but it can be a complicated process.

For example, to customize the Deskbar to search Whitehouse.gov, people must first search the government site using any keyword, then copy the Web address of the results page. They must then right-click the arrow adjacent to the Google Deskbar, select "options" and then "customized searches." After that, they click "add" to create a new specialized search and then name it--"White House," say--and paste the results URL in the field that reads: URL. Here's the tricky part: Users must delete the keyword within the address and replace it with the characters {1} to set up a search of Whitehouse.gov for any keyword.

Google has been a font of new search tools in the last year. It has introduced search features for math equations; news alerts; and a search toolbar that lets people block pop-up ads.

Piscitello said that the Deskbar is an "excellent complement" to the desktop toolbar, because now users can access Google from the desktop as well as the browser. Google's toolbar has millions of users, according to the company.

 

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