June 30, 2004 11:36 AM PDT

Tiger, Longhorn search for desktop answers

Microsoft and Apple Computer are searching for the same thing with their next operating systems: a better way to find stuff on an increasingly cluttered hard drive.

The software makers have made scouring for information a top priority. In large part, that's because hard drives have continued to grow, stretching the limits of old ways of accessing information, such as looking through folders.

News.context

What's new:
Apple and Microsoft are building powerful search features into the next versions of their desktop operating systems.

Bottom line:
The companies' grip on Mac and PC software gives them a head start in trying to emulate Google's Internet search success on the desktop.

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"We're filling those drives with a lot of contact information, calendar information, tons of e-mail and our photos, music and videos," Phil Schiller, a senior vice president at Apple, said in an interview. "Increasingly, it's getting difficult to find the info we want and find in all these increasingly varied file formats."

Apple promises that Tiger, the next version of Mac OS X, will be able to track down information that can't be found by hand using a search engine feature called "Spotlight." The technology, shown off at Apple's developer conference this week, is planned for the first half of next year. Microsoft, too, is planning to make search tools a centerpiece of Longhorn, its next update of Windows, which is not expected to debut until 2006 at the earliest.

The focus on desktop search comes as profits have exploded for makers of Web navigation tools such as Google and Yahoo--success that's thrown a spotlight on technology that can help guide consumers through a mounting glut of digital information. Google is readying for an initial public offering later this year, with hopes of raising more than $2.7 billion, based on expectations from its fast-growing Web search advertising business.

While the stakes are high on the Internet, they may be even higher on the desktop, where makers of operating systems such as Microsoft and Apple are in a unique position to provide access to stored files. Desktop data storage needs are soaring, thanks to the popularity of digital photography, music and other personal applications, but progress has largely stalled on this front since developers hit upon the file folder metaphor nearly two decades ago. Now developers are making better desktop navigation a top priority.

"Search has become an integral part of the whole PC experience," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "It's not just about hierarchical file systems anymore, but being able to find information...wherever it is that I happen to have it."

Sifting files
The Spotlight feature in Tiger keeps an index of files on a Mac. It also lists each file's contents and other data. When a search is launched, Spotlight is able to quickly gather not just files named "Washington," but also those with "Washington" in them and even ones created by "George Washington," for example.

Spotlight is an outgrowth of the search capabilities that Apple built into iTunes and its e-mail program. Schiller said the effort to expand search throughout the operating system predates the Panther release of Mac OS X last October.

"This is a problem we have recognized for a while," Schiller said. "There has been a lot of energy and time put into this."

Microsoft has outlined a similar set-up in the search engine it plans for Longhorn, though it has offered fewer details.

Apple and Microsoft are not of one mind when it comes to search, though. "I think we're talking about very, very different approaches," Gartenberg said.

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger


Expected release date: First half of 2005
Key Features: Spotlight, an improved search engine; improved videoconferencing in iChat; Dashboard, which offers one-key access to small applications; new graphics and video engines.
Price: $129  

Windows Longhorn


Expected release date: First half of 2006 (internal goal)
Key Features: WinFS, a new file system with improved search; Avalon, a new graphics and presentation engine; and Indigo, a Web services architecture.
Price: not announced

Apple has said its search efforts will focus only on the desktop, while Microsoft sees a need to also scour the Internet. Microsoft is targeting Google's stranglehold on Internet search while also seeing a potential incursion on the desktop from Google, as the search giant expands into e-mail and the searching of mail messages.

Gartenberg did note that there is enough time, before either operating system ships, for the makers to shift gears. "Longhorn is far from complete, and we haven't seen the final Tiger, either," he said.

But Matt Pilla, the client product manager for Windows, has indicated that Microsoft's Internet search efforts will be distinct from the improved PC search that comes with Longhorn.

"It's too early to provide details on Longhorn, but its focus will not be on Internet search," Pilla said in a statement. "Instead, Longhorn will be focused on helping people find, relate and act on data on their desktop."

To improve desktop search, Microsoft is turning to a new file system, dubbed WinFS, the result of a decade-old plan to revamp Windows search technology. In the initial releases of Longhorn, WinFS will let users search their local hard drives for information stored in nearly any format, according to Microsoft.

But the full promise of WinFS--to enable people to search not only on local PCs, but also across the network--won't be fully in place until the end of the decade, according to Microsoft.

Schiller said Apple will be able to implement Spotlight without requiring a new file system, though it is adding a way for the Mac OS to index all the additional information, or metadata, that is part of files such as music and digital pictures.

Tiger's head start
One thing Apple has on its side is timing, as Tiger is scheduled to arrive a year before Longhorn. But it's unclear how much of a financial or market edge that will be for Apple.

"Certainly, there is a psychological advantage in having your next-generation operating system out in advance of the competition," Gartenberg said. "There are certainly some bragging rights that go along with that. That is going to make the folks in Cupertino happy."

There has also been a fair amount of rhetoric about who is copying whom. Apple this week hung banners at its developer conference in San Francisco with slogans such as "Redmond, start your photocopiers" and "Redmond, we have a problem."

Schiller said it was a call to rally Apple's developer base more than an anti-Microsoft marketing campaign. "It's also just a fun way to explain the truth, which is that there is some blatant copying going on of the Mac OS," he added.

Some say Apple should be careful about such finger-pointing, given the resemblance between Dashboard, an information display feature planned for Tiger, to Konfabulator, a third-party program for Macs. Dashboard gives people a simple way to see constantly updated information such as the time and stock tickers. Microsoft plans a similar feature, known as Sidebar, for Longhorn.

In the end, the Longhorn-Tiger competition may be more of a war of words. People will have already made a decision to buy a Mac or a PC before they consider getting the upgrade. And for new computer buyers, the operating system is likely to be just one of many factors.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has more than just the Windows team focused on tackling search. Pilla said that search is a core task that is being addressed within many Microsoft units, including those handling Windows, Office and MSN.

"There is no one single place or definition for search," he said. "People want to search their computer, their intranet and the Internet at different times and in different contexts. We want to make sure we support all of them well."

5 comments

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Dude the war is over...and searching for a solution
Microsoft won. Period. They just left apple crippled instead of totally running them through. This war of words is a sad attempt to kick the giant in the kneecaps to get attention. That being said its a foregone conclusion that MS has copied Apple and Apple has copied MS. (Think Fast User Switching.) It works both ways and isn't limited to just Apple vs. MS. Beyond the continuing, and baffling, war between the two I'm at a loss to figure out who has the better search system. The amount of info that is available on MS's search features and WinFS is vague at best, I think intentionally so. It's difficult to get a handle on who has the better implementation. I'm starting to believe after reading over Apple's method of searching that MS most likely has the better method. Their implementation will be relational database driven through a stripped down version of Yukon. This has some fairly major implications both good and bad. Databases are always preferable to a standard index format which, if I'm reading Apple's site correctly, it is. A database with an associated engine allows searching beyond the local computer. Putting calls out to a network of computers or trees on an Active Directory becomes trivial with the appropriate hardware in place. From what I understand this is what Longhorn will be able to do. Do a call for searches beyond the local PC. The implementation seems WAY more robust then what Apple is hinting at. Also, again, if I'm reading this right the implementation of Apple's method will be similar to how I do a search in iTunes. I don't know about you guys but I have aprox 12,000 tracks in iTunes and it gets SLOOOOOOW when I start typing out things. Here's hoping Apple does some serious tweaking with how they read the index.
That being said there is something to be said for ANOTHER service running on Windows. I'm sorry but this possibility of highjacking this slimmed down version of Yukon and using it for nefarious purposes seems too much of a concern to be ignored. Such a system would be a major tool to a hacker or spammer. In addition to that its just one more service that we have to worry about breaking. What happens with WinFS's Yukon service decides to up and die on a box in the office? Is that going to kill the entire box? Part of the box? Will the OS be able to restart the service? Will a network wide search be smart enough to know that "hey! That winFS box is down and I can't read it!" and return results stating such a thing?
Too many questions at this point and way to few answers. But at least Apple is going to have answers sooner then Microsoft. I'm just not sure if we are going to like the answers they provide.
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yeah whatever!
Apple has a much better desktop layout in 10.3 and I'm sure
that their search engine will work better than microsoft's. At
least the os is stable enough to complete such tasks you'll be
restarting your pc and i'll be way ahead in work. iTunes is still
one of the best programs on windows and i'm sure that a lot of
pc users will agree with me on that. I find it amusing that most
of the Apple bashers are pc users who haven't owned a mac
before (especially one running osX)... they might have fiddled
with one in a store but what can you judge within a few
minutes... own one before you start complaining (yes I own a pc
for CAD purposes). As for the Konfabulator similarities Apple
had the idea back in their early days this idea has also been
copied on windows before Konfabulator, but Apple had the idea
of mini applications first. CNET writers should really do some
research before writing their articles, because I feel really
embaressed for you when reading some of you articles
Posted by Filip Remplakowski (91 comments )
Link Flag
Tried it and like it.
Having just switched from Linux (before that Windows 2000) to
Mac OS X, I can honestly admit that I cannot imagine anyone
needing to use Windows anymore.

I am more than happy with using OS X to get my work done. My
top reasons are efficiency, personal satisfaction with the OS
features, and reduced (ok, complete removal) of e-mail virus
worries.

If you haven't tried it, then you are missing out. When it was
time to upgrade my PCs, I decided to replace them all (home and
work) with a single Powerbook. It just works.
Posted by elements2 (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Apple is the copier!
I saw posted some time ago some screen shots of an drama queen Apple display that said something like "Redmond start your copy machines". On the same page it talked about the new Tiger OS and how it will innovate searching on the computer. Strange how this came out about year after MS released what longhorn will do.
Posted by marlow714 (29 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Timelines
The article also points out that Spotlight's search technology is
built on the same technology that is already used in iTunes and
Mail. For years. Articles have been written about the expansion
of the search into the OS for over a year. And these features
pre-date Panther's release, also over a year now.

Using both platforms, I do notice how the both work. While it's
difficult to pin-point who copied who, Apple seems to get the
tech out first in many instances.
Posted by sandman619 (54 comments )
Link Flag
 

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