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.