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Desktop search: changes ahead?

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My team and I were reviewing our search archive files to update our information about desktop search systems. The unexpected news was about high-profile consulting companies proclaiming the death of the personal computer. Desktop search requires a desktop computer. If the desktop computer is dead, doesn't that mean desktop search has no future?

Years ago, enterprise search began to get arthritis-a disturbing trend I wrote about in several places including my 2011 study The New Landscape of Search (Pandia Press). More recently, enterprise search has captured headlines. An interesting example is the $11 billion purchase of Autonomy by Hewlett-Packard. Following the acquisition, HP wrote off billions and made allegations that sparked quick reaction from former Autonomy executives. What I find interesting is that this type of fast-cycle twisting and turning underscores the present situation in search, content processing and analytics.

More quietly desktop search underwent a significant change. After Google's exit from the niche in 2011, desktop search overwhelmingly meant using the OS vendor's default search functionality: Windows Search in Windows Vista/Windows 7/Windows 8, and Spotlight in Apple's OS X operating system. (Note that many power users opt to use Application Launchers as their preferred way to find files, e.g., Launchy for Windows/OS X/Linux, and Alfred or Quicksilver for Mac OS X, although the search features of those programs are limited more to "file finding" than enabling full-fledged desktop search.)

What it is

For me, desktop search indexes unstructured content on a user's local computer. A desktop system may be able to index content available via a network file share. Desktop search systems usually process standard file types like Microsoft Word documents, mainstream e-mail files produced by Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird and some special file types such as Adobe Portable Document Format files with text embedded in the PDF.

The difference between desktop search and more robust workgroup search or enterprise search systems is functionality. An enterprise search system typically supports multiple simultaneous users. Desktop search is primarily a single user system. An enterprise search system usually supports a number of security and access control options. A system designed for organizationwide deployment often supports hundreds of file types, features one or more robust application programming interfaces for developers and an architecture designed to scale as more content and more users address the system. Desktop search, based on our tests, is useful but lacks many advanced features. Not surprisingly, the commercial desktop search market has changed in the last few years.

I took a quick flyover of the desktop search systems that I had cataloged in my "search vertical file." The table (download PDF of Selected Desktop Search Systems table) provides an interesting set of information about what has happened to smaller-scale search and content processing systems.

In the sample of systems that I reviewed, I noticed that about half have been discontinued. Of the 10 systems, I use three with some regularity: Effective File Search, Gaviri and Windows Search. Two of the active vendors—Copernic and Perceptive Software—handled customer support in a manner that struck me as unnecessarily complicated. Two—SearchMyFiles and X1—provided interfaces that I found somewhat difficult to use.

Death knell?

One could make a case that desktop search is an enterprise segment that is mature and in the process of consolidating to a half-dozen players and two giants, Microsoft and Apple. The Wall Street Journal blog in April 2013 included the following:

"That sound you heard ... was the death rattle of the PC era. The inexorable decline of the desktop computer has accelerated sharply; depending on whether you believe IDC or Gartner, worldwide shipments fell by either 14 percent or 11 percent during the first three months of 2013. Just as with the fall of Rome, the reasons are manifold. Gartner tells The Journal that the decline has been fueled by greater consumer interest in touch devices. IDC, on the other hand, blames Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system—and its new user interface, seen as frustrating and confusing to many customers." (See blogs.wsj.com/cio/2013/04/11/the-morning-download-death-knell-for-the-pc-era.)

USA Today took the position that "the PC isn't dead. It's just gone ultramobile." (See usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/04/09/pc-mobile-gartner-group-ultramobile/2067417.) The hook for that story and for dozens of other articles are authoritative reports by Gartner and IDC.

Let me pull some touchpoints from the Gartner report as outlined by the financial blog, The Motley Fool. (See fool.com/investing/businesswire/2013/04/04/gartner-says-worldwide-pc-tablet-and-mobile-phone-.aspx):

  • The traditional PC market of notebooks and desk-based units is expected to decline 7.6 percent in 2013.
  • Worldwide devices (the combined shipments of PCs, tablets and mobile phones) are on pace to total 2.4 billion units in 2013, a 9 percent increase from 2012.
  • Worldwide tablet shipments are forecast to total 197 million units in 2013, a 69.8 percent increase from 2012 shipments of 116 million units.
  • Tablets are not the only devices that are seeing aggressive price erosion; smartphones are also becoming more affordable, driving adoption in emerging markets and the prepay segment in mature markets. Of the 1.875 billion mobile phones to be sold in 2013, one billion units will be smartphones, compared with 675 million units in 2012.

Growing appetite

On the other hand, desktop computers and luggables like old-style laptop computers are likely to sport disc hard drives that are poised to get bigger. The most recent storage breakthrough makes use of "shingling," a method that is easy and economical for manufacturers to implement. The innovation comes from Kim Keng Teo and co-workers at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute in Singapore and the Niigata Institute of Technology in Japan. I learned of the advance via Phys.Org. (See phys.org/news/2013-04-simply-pattern-hard capacities.html.) If the hyperbole is accurate, think in terms of multiterabyte drives at bargain prices.

Both consumers and enterprise computer users have a growing appetite for storage. The response I hear when I ask about storage requirements is, "I just save everything now." More storage is good news for those who need space for big data and space hogs like corporate training videos, burgeoning archives of reference documents and e-mail with plump, often must-have attachments. Winnowing files can wait. For me, more often than I care to admit, finding a specific item is the equivalent of starting a fire with two rocks.

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