It seems about half the feeds in my aggregator are buzzing with news of the new Google Desktop Search. Although I don't really have the need for a desktop search product I was going to download it and try it out anyway until I found it user a web browser interface accessed via a local web server. Not being a fan of browser based user interfaces I decided to pass. Since then I've seen a couple of posts from people like Joe Gregorio and Julia Lerman who've claimed that Google Desktop Search delivers the promise of WinFS today.

Full text search is really orthogonal to what WinFS is supposed to enable on the Windows platform. I've written about such misconceptions in the past, most recently in my post Killing the "WinFS is About Making Search Better" Myth where I wrote

At its core, WinFS was about storing strongly typed objects in the file system instead of opaque blobs of bits. The purpose of doing this was to make accessing and manipulating the content and metadata of these files simpler and more consistent. For example, instead of having to know how to manipulate JPEG, TIFF, GIF and BMP files there would just be a Photo item type that applications would have to deal with. Similarly one could imagine just interacting with a built in Music item instead of programming against MP3, WMA, OGG, AAC, and WAV files. In talking to Mike Deem a few months ago and recently seeing Bill Gates discuss his vision for WinFS to folks in our building a few weeks ago it is clear to me that the major benefits of WinFS to end users is the possibilities it creates in user interfaces for data organization.

Recently I switched from using WinAmp to iTunes on the strength of the music organizational capabilities of the iTunes library and "smart playlists". The strength of iTunes is that it provides a consistent interface to interacting with music files regardless of their underlying type (AAC, MP3, etc) and provides ways to add metadata about these music files (ratings, number of times played) then organize these files according to this metadata. Another application that shows the power of the data organization based on rich, structured metadata is Search Folders in Outlook 2003. When I used to think of WinFS I got excited about being able to perform SQL-like queries over items in the file system. Then I heard Bill Gates and Mike Deem speak about WinFS then saw them getting excited about the ability to take the data organizational capabilities of features like the My Pictures and My Music folders in Windows to the next level it all clicked.

Now this isn't to say that there aren't some searches made better by coming up with a consistent way to interact with certain file types and providing structured metadata about these files. For example a search like

Get me all the songs [regardless of file type] either featuring or created by G-Unit or any of its members (Young Buck, 50 Cent, Tony Yayo or Lloyd Banks) between 2002 and 2004 on my hard drive

is made possible with this system. However it is more likely that I want to navigate this in a UI like the iTunes media library than I want to type the equivalent of SQL queries over my file system.

Technologies like Google Desktop Search solve a problem a few people have while WinFS is aimed at solving a problem most computer users have. The problem the Google Desktop Search mainly satisfies is how to locate a single file in your file system that may not be easy to navigate to via the traditional file system explorer. However most computer users put files in few locations on their file system so they usually know where to find the file they need. Most of the time I put files in one of four folders on my hard drive 

  1. My Documents
  2. My Music
  3. Visual Studio Projects (subfolder of My Documents)
  4. My Download Files 

For some of my friends you can substitute the "Visual Studio Projects" folder for the "My Pictures" folder. I also know a number of people who just drop everything on their Windows desktop. However the point is still the same, lots of computer users store a large amount of their content in a single location where it eventually becomes hard to manipulate, organize and visualize the hundreds of files contained therein. The main reason I stopped using WinAmp was that the data organization features of Windows Explorer are so poor. Basically all I have when dealing with music files is 'sort by type' or some variation of 'sort by name' and a list view. iTunes changed the way I listened to music because it made it extremely easy to visualize and navigate my music library. The ability to also perform rich ad-hoc queries via Smart Playlists is also powerful but a feature I rarely use.

Tools like Lookout and Google Desktop Search are a crutch to get around the fact that the file navigation metaphor on most desktop systems is past its prime and is in dire need of improvement. This isn't to say fast full text search isn't important, even with all the data organizational capabilities of Microsoft Outlook I still tend to use Lookout when looking for emails sent past a few weeks ago. However it is not the high order bit in solving the problems most computer users have with locating and interacting with the files on their hard drives.

The promise of WinFS is that it aims to turn every application [including file navigation applications like Windows explorer] into the equivalent of Outlook and iTunes when it comes to data visualization and navigation by baking such functionality into the file system APIs and data model. Trying to reduce that to "full text search plus indexing" is missing the forest for the trees. Sure that may get you part of the way but in the end it's like driving a car with your feet. There is a better way and it is much closer than most people think.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004 3:45:34 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)

You wrote
"iTunes changed the way I listened to music because it made it extremely easy to visualize and navigate my music library. The ability to also perform rich ad-hoc queries via Smart Playlists is also powerful but a feature I rarely use."

You're failing to consider the possibility that Google Desktop Search (GDS) is a user interface that makes it extremely easy to visualize and navigate users' hard drives.

For years, we've all interacted with our hard drives through Explorer windows (or on the Mac, the Finder). In that UI, folders are the primary unit of grouping, and when you want to organize files, you put them into a new folder (like all your music into your My Music folder).

Mosaic (and later Netscape and IE) followed that same UI for Web content. You put all your favorite links into a Favorites or Bookmarks folder, and then you can make subfolders if you want to organize your Favorites. The WWW Virtual Library and Yahoo also followed this paradigm, on a larger and less personalized scale.

Google (and other search engines before it) changed the UI for managing links. Instead of storing links in your Favorites folder (where they can go stale) or navigating a Yahoo-style hierarchy, you just need to remember some unique identifying phrase from the Web page. Type it into the search engine, and voila', there's the site you were looking for (even if it moved).

Google Desktop Search presents a similar UI for managing files on your hard drive. Instead of asking users to organize their information, Google says "don't bother organizing it at all". Just remember something about what you're looking for (however tenuous), and you'll get there. (In fact, GDS goes a step further, by keeping track of information you didn't save at the time, but want later.)

An advantage to this UI is that it brings the machine to the user instead of the other way around. Now users can find information based on the content of that information itself, instead of how they had organized it. Instead of having to try to remember which folder you stuck it in, and what filename you gave it, you just need to remember what "it" is, and GDS will find it. Not only that, but GDS will also find ten other relevant things that you had forgotten about.

Files and folders are closer to disk sectors and clusters than they are to how users think about their information. In fact, why use files at all? Why not just have one big scrapbook that you can throw everything into, and Google-like search to find anything later. (OneNote?)

You don't find iTunes' music query/search useful, because it can't do any of these things. iTunes can search off of metadata associated with each song/album, but that's all. It doesn't search lyrics, it can't find a tune just by having you hum a few bars, and it doesn't find all songs that are related (like other artists' covers of the same song, songs that inspired it or were inspired by it, etc.) In fact, iTunes uses the same old folder-based organization (playlists). iTunes organizes music pretty much the same way as Windows Media Player and every other music player out there.

You also wrote that
"he promise of WinFS is that it aims to turn every application into the equivalent of Outlook and iTunes when it comes to data visualization and navigation by baking such functionality into the file system APIs and data model."

The promise of Google Desktop Search is that the applications and old folder-based UI become irrelevant. Every scrap of information Google indexes is now right at your fingertips, across every application, old or new.


P.S. And I just focused on keyword-style search, ignoring the more powerful search features available (which most users don't know about).

You know, there are good reasons the Library of Congress relies so heavily on combined full-text and boolean search. Laws are neatly organized and numbered, but that doesn't make it easy to find all bills written by Congresswoman FooBar about the environment.

In five years you'll wonder where you put that draft for an Extreme XML column on such and such, or that draft ThinkWeek paper, and full-text+logical search will be the only way you can find it.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 3:48:30 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
hey, I can get to your blog now and even comment. Dare - I'm afraid you somehow misinterpreted my blog post. I was not in any way comparing Google Desktop to WinFS. I was just pointing out that others had and that that is totally wrong.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 5:12:36 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think search such as GDS is a poor replacement for navigating file systems using visual hierarchies. Search works when I'm looking for a specific thing. I want a better way to browse my filesystem not a better way to find specific files on my filesystem.

That's exactly why I'd prefer to use iTunes for managing my music collection than I'd use GDS on steroids + Winamp. When I'm playing music and want to switch songs I typically think to myself "What do I want to listen to next?" not "Now where is song foo by artist bar?". GDS assumes I am looking for something. I don't lose files on my file system, I just want a better way of visualizing the numerous files I have there now.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 10:39:13 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
the problem with full text search, of course, is that not everything is stored blatantly, right there, in the document, as text. for example... i know that two years ago, i worked with this guy from avanade, and wrote a doc that explained a certain network routing problem that we were experiencing at a client location. I think that there might be a similar problem at my current location. I don't remember the details of the problem, i don't remember the guys name, and i'm not even sure which client it was, because i was working with 3 or 4 at the time, and avanade was involved with a couple of them. I don't even remember if he wrote this up as a word doc, or just an email, or maybe it was a powerpoint presentation?

i don't think that full text search will help me here... no doc on my hard drive has the words "avanade solution for network problem". but, having winFS might help. I could say, show me a list of all docs written by avanade employees (as defined in my address book) that were produced during 2002, sorted by how frequently i've read them, and then by size, and display the projects that each is associated with. that helps a bit more.
Thursday, October 21, 2004 8:51:36 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I feel mildly dissapointed that you wrote this article without trying out the Google Desktop System! If I had a product yet-to-be-released, and my customers were oh-so-excited about a competitors' product as an alternative to mine, and it was available as a _free_ download, I'd definitely try it out. I think most people would before blogging about it.

Knowing that you haven't tried google desktop ... well it made it difficult to appreciate your comments about WinFS!!
Thursday, October 21, 2004 9:09:06 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I've used Google Desktop Search. Several people at work have installed it to try it out.
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