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Google’s Land Grab

I’ve ceded part of my PC’s desktop real estate, rent free, to a new occupant: the beta of Google Desktop, Version 2. So far, the program has been a desirable tenant, but I’m reserving the right to evict it if…
August 23, 2005

I’ve ceded part of my PC’s desktop real estate, rent free, to a new occupant: the beta of Google Desktop, Version 2. So far, the program has been a desirable tenant, but I’m reserving the right to evict it if relations go sour.

The software, a free download for Windows XP and Windows 2000 machines, came out on August 22. It’s much more than a simple upgrade of Version 1, which appeared last October and focused on indexing users’ hard drives so that Google could search their personal content just as quickly as it searches the Web. The new version still does that, of course, but it’s been reinvented as an always-on sidebar that cascades down the entire vertical length of the desktop screen, offering a stack of simple applications or “plug-ins,” such as a news box, an RSS reader, and a scratch pad, all of which users can modify or replace. If Version 1 was Google’s first tentative foray away from the Web and onto the desktop (where it showed up mainly as an icon in the system tray), Version 2 is a wholesale land grab in a territory that, up to now, has been dominated by Microsoft.

Others are vying for that territory too, of course. “Toolbars,” “deskbars,” “sidebars,” “dashboards,” “widgets,” and other sub-browser-sized tools for accessing and organizing local and network data have been popping up like meerkats lately, with much of the momentum coming from open-source developers and small companies such as Pixoria (recently acquired by Yahoo).

Nat Friedman, who leads Linux desktop engineering at Novell and creates open-source applications on the side, has been working for a couple of years on Dashboard, a Linux program that studies a user’s behavior and displays data relevant to their current task. The Blinkx desktop search tool does something similar, and Microsoft calls the whole concept implicit query; there was talk a year or two ago that such a feature might be included in next year’s Windows Vista operating system, so stay tuned.

Users of Macintosh’s OS X operating system, meanwhile, have long had a choice of widgets for their desktops – small programs that do one thing, such as displaying a free-floating clock or keeping a to-do list. For the last couple of months I’ve been enjoying Pixoria’s Konfabulator, a program that runs widgets on Windows; one useless but fun widget grabs photos from the “My Pictures” folder and displays them in miniature slide-show format.

Google Desktop Version 2 is basically Google’s take on widgets, except that these widgets or plug-ins stick together in a column rather than floating freely on your desktop. The standard plug-ins include an e-mail monitor that can watch your Outlook and Gmail inboxes and show the latest arrivals; a news reader that filters news according to your preferences, which it learns by watching what you read; a “Web Clips” box that’s actually an RSS reader; a scratch pad for personal notes; a photo player; a “What’s Hot” list of frequently-viewed websites; a “Quick View” box that does the same thing as the Windows Start menu; a stock ticker; and a local weather update. And there are already more than 60 other plug-ins, developed by independent programmers using an application programming interface released by Google.

So far, I like the new Google Desktop. It’s more compact and customizable, and less distracting, than many of the other desktop search-and-organization tools I’ve tried. It’s got some clever touches that are beyond my understanding, such as the ability to scan both my inbox in both Outlook (a once-impregnable fortress that couldn’t be accessed by any other program) and my Web-based e-mail accounts. I can already tell I won’t be using some of the plug-ins, such as the Quick View box; for me, the Start menu, its Recent Documents list, and the history button in Firefox are enough. But that’s okay, since I can just turn off the plug-ins I don’t like, freeing up space for others that might be more interesting.

The only feature of Google Desktop Version 2 that I’ve found truly annoying, so far, is the fact that the default setting of the Web Clips plug-in causes the program to subscribe automatically to the RSS feed for every website you visit. I went to CNET a few minutes ago to pull up an article; now there are five other CNET articles in my Web Clips box. That’s cool, but I’m not that ardent a user of CNET. To be useful, an RSS reader should be more tuneable – the whole point of RSS, after all, is that it gives users a choice of the content they want to see regularly.

Some media reports are painting Google Desktop Version 2 as a direct assault on Microsoft, but I think there’s a more interesting dynamic at work. Desktop tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other sources are co-evolving in response to one another. Google Desktop clearly builds on the idea of widgets, for example, while Windows Vista will undoubtedly include features that answer certain challenges posed by Google. While some worry that a triumvirate of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo will ultimately come to dominate the area of information access and organization, I’m just glad that Google and Yahoo are providing Microsoft with some serious competition. We all come out richer for it.

By the way, expect another big announcement from Google on Wednesday, August 24, when the company will supposedly introduce a new communications tool. Google Instant Messenger? A Google smart phone? Who knows. Google’s bag of surprises seems bottomless. (Addendum 1:49 pm: the LA Times speculates that Google will announce a new instant messaging and voice chat service called Google Talk.)

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