Microsoft may have a keen interest in search, but its next-generation Windows operating system looks to be more of a threat to super-organised executive assistants than to Google.
Although the software maker has been steadily investing in search, its upcoming operating system, code-named Longhorn, is taking a new tack when it comes to helping users locate desktop files.
In Longhorn, Microsoft is "moving away from search" and concentrating on how people organise and find documents, said Brad Goldberg, general manager of Windows Client Business Group.
"We're hoping our users never say they can't find a file again," Goldberg said during an interview in London on Thursday.
Longhorn will not tie together desktop and Internet search capabilities, but instead focus on organisation and offering users more ways to view their documents, Goldberg said.
This strategy may come as a bit of a surprise given that Microsoft introduced a desktop search tool late last year that offers tight integration with the Windows environment and applications. The MSN Toolbar Suite, introduced as a free beta in December, can search the Web from Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, and includes tools to index and retrieve Microsoft Word and PowerPoint files, calendar items, contacts and e-mail messages from Microsoft Outlook.
While the software maker faces numerous challengers in the desktop search market, including Google, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, when launching Toolbar Suite Microsoft said it planned to win over users with its Windows integration.
Now there appears to be a question as to how Longhorn, due out in the second half of 2006, fits with Microsoft's search efforts.
Goldberg said he believes that the way in which people gather information will change, and users will spend less time searching the Web. Instead, they will use tools like RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and XML (Extensible Markup Language) to have information they want pushed to them, he said.
With that in mind, Microsoft has been working on making data stored on PCs easier to find by offering Longhorn features such as virtual folders and keywords, Goldberg said. Users will be able to create virtual folders based on keywords, allowing them to drop in related documents saved in various places on their computers. All documents associated with clients, for example, could be dragged to a virtual "client" folder although they are located in different company files, Goldberg said.
Longhorn will also have a dialog box in the start panel where users can type a program or file name and the software will find it without the user having to open applications, he said.
Users hunting for a document will also be able to click through various folders, without opening and closing each one to locate it. Instead, a list will appear across the top, telling the user how far down the folder chain they've clicked. Users will also be able to see how many documents are in a folder without opening it, Goldberg said.
All these visualization and organisation features are Microsoft's way of solving the "where did I save that?" conundrum, without relying solely on a powerful search engine.
Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, said that while better organization will certainly help users locate desktop items, people are still going to want to search the Web. And he dismissed the notion that users will be performing fewer Web searches because they'll have more information pushed to them.
"That is not going to happen. People aren't going to subscribe to just what they want, because they don't know what they want," Sullivan said.
While the official release of Longhorn is still a ways off, Microsoft's decision to play up organisation rather than search could be because that's where the company feels more comfortable, Sullivan said.
"It seems like they are saying that desktop search is not going to be the trump card we're banking on," Sullivan said.