Most desktop users are used to trawling through forgotten folders to find long-lost files. There is a better way.
Computing technology may move blindingly fast in most areas, but PCs are organising files the same way they did 20 years ago.
While they still use hierarchical folders to keep track of documents, the volume and type of information we have to manage has exploded.
This is why trying to find documents and e-mails that you filed away six months ago can eat into your lunch hour. It can be time-consuming to find the contact details for a person who mailed you a year ago – especially if you don’t remember their name.
Free desktop search tools are closing the gap between inadequate file systems and information overload and index everything from e-mails to spreadsheets on your local hard drive.
Entering search words produces the files containing that text, wherever they are on your computer. Most desktop search tools will search the contents of attachments too. That enables you to find the PDF file that someone e-mailed to you last June, even if you don’t remember who sent it or what it’s called.
The tools have been adding more features, such as integrating desktop and web searches. Now, a second generation of tools is trying to go a step further.
Search engine company Blinkx offers an implicit query feature in its desktop search tool that “reads” the document you’re looking at and searches your computer for relevant files.
The system will find documents related to everything from the Word document that you’re editing to a web page or e-mail that you’re reading. The trick lies in looking at the big picture rather than individual keywords by using statistical analysis, says co-founder Suranga Chandratillake.
Blinkx can also create smart folders on your desktop that regularly search the web and the local file system for documents relating to particular concepts.
If you read this article online and put it in a smart folder, it would fill itself with documents, blog entries and web pages relating to desktop search tools.
Apple provides a similar smart folder function, although without the implicit query facility, built into its operating system.
For some companies, the gains come in searching company-wide information stores. Autonomy, Mr Chandratillake’s former employer which licenses some of its technology to Blinkx, sells software designed to search both the desktop and the rest of the enterprise.
Mike Lynch, Autonomy’s chief executive, warns: “It’s a very different art when you’re talking about the network, because you have to be sure people can only see what they’re meant to see.”
But search tools must now crack bigger problems, such as searching for pictures on the desktop. Searching for key words is one thing, but how about a search tool that finds all pictures with faces, or pictures taken indoors last July?
Intel’s research arm has developed a prototype tool called Snapfind that finds pictures with those kinds of loose specifications, but today’s technology is mostly hit and miss.
What will desktop search look like in the future? Microsoft has released a preview version of WinFS, software that creates relationships between files such as spreadsheets, address book contacts or events in your calendar.
A user could select an event, for example a conference they attended, and view all the pictures they took at the event.
Merge that with better natural language searching, and you could start asking your computer questions such as, “When did Bob last mail me?” or “Who did I meet at the conference in May, and where do they live?”
When that happens, we could finally see file management technology catch up with the rest of the PC.
■Desktop search tools can be found at the following sites:
Ask Jeeves: http://sp.ask.com/docs/desktop/
MSN Search: http://toolbar.msn.com