''For users who have a few thousand documents that span several years, [these tools] are extremely valuable,'' says Rusty Bruns, CIO at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina.
Desktop search tools let users rapidly index and search their local files, e-mail in-boxes, calendars, contacts, instant message transcripts, PDF files, spreadsheets, image files and more. Some tools, like Microsoft's MSN Desktop Search, allow users to search through shared and networked drives they have access to.
IT managers and experts alike say these tools offer tremendous benefits for the corporate environment as help desks spend a good deal of time trying to help users find files or other information on their laptops and desktops.
''The reason why these tools have been developed is that no one could find files on their desktops,'' says David Burns, CEO of Boston-based Copernic Technologies, Inc., also a maker of a desktop search tool. ''Yet, people are downloading and creating more and more files and images and other content.''
Add to this the hundreds of gigabytes of storage on desktops and laptops and suddenly you have a content pool that is unruly, he says.
''The biggest resource of any large company is the knowledge workers, and they are an expensive resource,'' Burns says. Having these employees spending time searching for information that should be readily available is a waste of money, he adds.
''I find it much faster and more comprehensive than just a standard drive or folder search using Windows,'' says Charleston Southern University's Bruns, who uses Google's Desktop Search tool. Though he has not rolled the product out to his entire campus of users, Bruns says he does have a number of users test driving it. ''Those who have tried it are very positive. I haven't received any negative feedback.''
Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president and founding partner at Nemertes Research in Brooklyn, N.Y., calls desktop search ''a huge productivity enhancer for employees.''
''Most companies have woefully inadequate knowledge management infrastructures,'' he says. ''Employees tend to keep their files stored locally.''
Antonopoulos says the new spate of tools lets users data-mine their e-mail and other documents on their laptops. He says the tools also are blended with Web searches, so they quickly get local and remote results, saving a tremendous amount of time.
But today's desktop search tools have their drawbacks.
For instance, it is very difficult to limit what the index culls from machines. ''You can find information that people didn't intend to be indexed,'' says Antonopoulos. ''There is very little granularity in deciding what you want indexed and what you don't want indexed.''
Microsoft says it does not index cached Web pages in case a user has entered personal information on a Web site form.
Antonopoulos says tools on the market require workarounds to be efficient in the enterprise.
For instance, at Nemertes Research, a small firm comprised of analysts in various locations throughout the country, the team has developed a layered approach for searching documents. It is comprised of a file-sharing system for community documents with a desktop search tool placed on top of that. This allows the analysts to search through the shared documents for important information.
But there are still snafus with desktop search tools, including the inability to easily search Web-based e-mail, which is becoming a common tool in organizations. To do that, users must first export their data into another file.
Another problem is the inherent security problems involved with indexing everything on a desktop. Password files and other discreet information could suddenly be easy to access if a laptop is stolen or a desktop compromised. In fact, Antonopoulos recommends locking down computers running desktop search tools with biometrics or other security mechanisms.
Also, rolling out the consumer tools to a raft of enterprise users could bring a Microsoft Exchange Server down as it's not built to handle constant indexing.
''Overall, these tools are still lacking access control, granularity and integration features,'' Antonopoulos says.
Enterprise Tools Are Coming
x1 Technologies, Inc., the maker of the consumer-oriented tool Yahoo uses, is developing an Enterprise Edition for its desktop search designed to address the needs of IT managers and their users.
Mark Goodstein, founder and executive vice president of business development at x1 Technologies, says Enterprise Edition will feature centralized server deployment so IT managers can control distribution and manage the application's settings. Using Enterprise Manager, which is a part of that package, he says IT organizations can turn off, or even remove, certain portions of the interface.
The Enterprise Edition also will let IT managers index information stored on file servers rather than each user indexing that information separately. He says this will save on network bandwidth and storage. Goodstein adds that the x1 Enterprise Edition is slated to be available this quarter.
A Google spokesperson says the company also is working on another version of its desktop search tool that addresses enterprise concerns.
''The Google Desktop Search tool is still an early-stage beta product and may not be ideal for some computing environments, such as shared computing (coffeehouses, etc.). The product also is not specifically designed for broad corporate distribution today. However, we are working on an enterprise version of the product that should be available in the coming months.''
Google would not offer specifics of the enterprise product, but did say it would support ''a greater diversity of content types''.