By Charlene Li
MSN Desktop debuts – integration helps, but complexity hinders
It’s going to an interesting week – MSN bowed its desktop search today, just days after Yahoo! announced its strategy. And Ask Jeeves is set to enter the fray on Wednesday with AOL expected to announce at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future. As I wrote in an earlier post, this is all an attempt to extend the reach and loyalty of each of the major search engines.
Overall, I found MSN’s desktop search to be fast and complete, if somewhat complex to manage. I believe that both MSN and Google (as well as their future competitors) will all develop more robust desktop search that can handle multiple files and give users flexibility and control over the search results. In this initial phase, however, people will choose their desktop search primarily based on which Web search engine they use most. Secondarily, if they are heavy users of programs like Outlook email or what I call “power” searches who want a lot of control, they will look to more robust solutions like MSN or Yahoo’s pre-announced desktop search based on X1’s technology.
+ The desktop search is part of the new MSN Toolbar Suite, which has four toolbars in all – 1) MSN Deskbar, which sites on the bottom “Start” bar on Windows and is always available; 2) MSN Toolbar in Internet Explorer, a revamp of MSN’s current toolbar; 3) a new toolbar for Outlook; and 4) a new toolbar for Windows Explorer. These toolbars are all add-ons to existing platforms – it’s expected that they will be “baked-in” with future releases of major platforms like Longhorn. Despite that, integration into two of the most commonly used programs, Outlook for email, and Windows Explorer means that MSN puts desktop search where they’re most likely to be used, namely, when a user can’t find a file through conventional folder sorting techniques. While Google’s desktop search is still a separate application (albeit, integrated into Google Web search results), I don’t think it will take long for Google to insert desktop search into their own toolbar and create similar tools for Outlook and Windows Explorer.
+ The MSN Deskbar makes search ubiquitous. I can search for desktop OR Web items through the deskbar – Google only allows Web search (at least for now) through its Deskbar. While this is convenient, I had a few problems getting to used to the advanced features on MSN Deskbar. First, I have to toggle between desktop and Web search – it automatically defaults to the last type of search that I did on MSN Deskbar. Second, there’s a really cool feature called “word wheeling” which shows your desktop search results being refined as you type. Extra bonus points for being able to click on a file directly from this window and My problem – at some point I had reduced the size of the window and only saw the two choices, desktop and Web search, when I typed. It took a few days to figure out that I had to enlarge that window again.
+ MSN Desktop Search results can be sorted across multiple categories. I can sort a search like “desktop search” by file title, author, date, size, type, and folder, and also by relevancy. Compare this to Google, where results can be sorted only by date and relevancy. This makes a lot more sense because with desktop search, I know that a file exists and usually have an idea of the properties, such as file types. One major problem with the search results though was that the description contained the first few words of the file, rather than pull the search term into context. For example, I searched for a three year old PowerPoint file that contained the words “work it out”. MSN pulled the correct file, but I couldn’t identify it. In contrast, Google’s description on the same search put it into context with the rest of the text on the page and I was able to immediately identify the file as the correct one.
+ MSN can search across multiple media types – especially helpful are PDF and media files. But there’s a hitch – it won’t find my music in iTunes that are in Apple’s proprietary format. One other difference is MSN does not search Web history, partly because of privacy issues. But this feature can be very helpful, especially if I’m trying to remember a site that I’ve seen in the past.
+ One major glitch that I ran into is that in order for MSN to index Outlook email, it has to be set as the default mail client. This is not the case for Google. Google’s interface for reading email also consolidates “conversations”, in much the same way it does for Gmail.
+ MSN’s commitment to privacy is seen in its desktop search offering. No information such as search terms or usage information is sent back to MSN, compared to Google which by default activates a “beacon” to provide aggregated tracking data.