Online search engine leader Google Inc. is setting its sights on the computer desktop with a new software program that promises to scour through the clutter of documents, e-mails, instant messages and other files stored on hard drives.
The free desktop search program, unveiled Thursday at http://desktop.google.com, marks Google's latest attempt to become even more indispensable to the millions of people who entrust the company to find virtually anything on the Web.
It's a not surprising step into a crucial realm.
Managing infoglut is an increasing challenge for computer users, and the program gives Google an important head start on Microsoft Corp., which is working on a similar file-searching tool that it recently said would not be ready for the next version of its Windows operating system promised for 2006.
``We think of this (program) as the photographic memory of your computer,'' said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. ``It's pretty comprehensive. If there's anything you once saw on your computer screen, we think you should be able to find it again quickly.''
The may give Mountain View-based Google, the industry leader in Internet search, a significant competitive advantage in luring traffic from chief rivals Microsoft's MSN. and Yahoo Inc., both of which have been improving their technology.
Although the program can be used exclusively offline to probe hard drives, Google designed it so it will meld with its online search engine. Google.com visitors who have new program installed on their computer will see a ``desktop'' tab above the search engine toolbar and all their search results will include a section devoted to the hard drive in addition to the Web.
``The integration with the search engine is the key to this product and what makes it pretty fantastic,'' said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who previewed the new product.
Google is betting the program will expand its search engine audience and encourage even more online searches than it already processes -- a pattern that would yield advertising revenue, the company's main moneymaker.
The company's financial success already has turned its stock into a hot commodity. Google's shares closed Wednesday at $140.90, a 66 percent gain from their initial public offering price of $85 less than two months ago.
Leery of raising privacy concerns that have shadowed its recently introduced e-mail service, Google is emphasizing that the desktop search program doesn't provide a peephole into the hard drive, even when the product connects with the online search engine.
``It's totally private,'' Mayer said. ``Google does not know what happens when the hard drive is searched.''
Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, said she will withhold judgment until she thoroughly reviews the new program. ``The key question will be if this thing ever phones home to the mother ship.''
Despite her reservations, Dixon expects Google's desktop search program to have mass appeal. ``I think most people think of their computer hard drives as these black holes of information, so this could be of some real value,'' she said. ``
Other desktop search programs are already available, such as X1 Search from X1 Technologies Inc. of Pasadena, but Google is the first company among high-tech's household names to try to make it easier for people sift through the mishmash of files, e-mails, and instant messages on personal computers.
Google began working on the program, code named ``Fluffy Bunny,'' about a year ago, Mayer said, in response to a familiar refrain: ``Why can't I search my computer as easily as I can search the Web?''
In addition to Microsoft, AOL is reported to also be working on a desktop search program and most industry analysts believe Yahoo Inc. will develop something similar.
Google is allowing people to download its program for free. Currently compatible only with the Windows operating system, it requires about 10 minutes to download on a dial-up connection and takes some five or six hours to index a computer's hard drive.
Each program user can select the types of information to be indexed and searched.
The product can pore through the files using Microsoft Office applications and several types of e-mail programs, including Microsoft's Outlook and Hotmail and Yahoo.
Google's desktop search still isn't compatible with the company's new e-mail service, called Gmail. If desired, the program automatically saves all AOL instant message conversations and all Web pages stored on a computer.
Google's desktop search program is so powerful, Li said, that computer users should carefully consider what kind of material they want indexed, particularly if they're sharing a computer with family, friends or office colleagues.
``People are going to have to think pretty carefully about this,'' Li said. ``There are some things that you probably don't want indexed on a computer.''
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