Although “Desktop Search” in its many present forms is garnering a lot of techie buzz today, the ability to search and find files on your computer has been around for a long time. It started out simple (as most things do). Operating systems incorporated a “Find” window, into which you typed the name (or partial name) of a file, and the system took you to it. Even with relatively slow processor speeds, this type of search was fairly speedy, as you couldn’t have that many files to search for on the day’s whopping twenty-megabyte hard drives. This all worked well as long as the file names (which were, at the time, constrained to many fewer characters than they are today) were somewhat descriptive of the file’s contents.
The advent of faster processors and more sophisticated systems brought a new approach to desktop search “indexing”. During “down times”, or overnight, or at times of your choosing, the operating system would scan the files on your computer. It then created an index, or table of contents, of not only the names, but also the content, of your files.
Not every file, of course. For example, there’s no practical way to index the content in video, music or image files (other than the text-formatted attached metadata). And, of course, there is really no need to index the text making up the code of the operating system files and other installed software, as the everyday user, even if they found the code, certainly wouldn’t want to modify it.
The problem with early index-based search systems was that newly created files were not indexed until the next designated indexing period. But with even greater processing power, the current crop of “add-on” search tools like MSN Search and Google Desktop Search (for Windows) and the system-level Spotlight feature in Apple’s new Mac OS 10.4 “Tiger” operating system, can index the system in the background while you’re busy using it. Newly created or modified files are added almost instantly to the index.
So, will these advanced desktop search “engines” change the way we organize our computers? Are the days of using file cabinet-like hierarchical folders to organize all our stuff headed the way of the dot matrix printer, floppy disk, and fax machine? Only time will tell.
© 2005 Peter F. Zimowski