Microsoft's MSN division yesterday unveiled software that searches files stored on a computer, improving what had been a ponderous and time-consuming task while at the same time...

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Microsoft’s MSN division yesterday unveiled software that searches files stored on a computer, improving what had been a ponderous and time-consuming task while at the same time laying groundwork for future battles with rivals Google and Yahoo!

The free tool, still in test form, is part of a new collection of MSN software that isn’t shy about announcing itself. Called the MSN Toolbar Suite, it places three entry points in front of the user through new toolbars in the Windows Explorer file directory, the Microsoft Office Outlook e-mail program and the Windows Deskbar.

MSN has also updated its toolbar in the Internet Explorer browser, enabling desktop search from a Web site.

It had promised to debut the software by the end of the year and is racing with competitors to develop free tools for PC users.

Google launched a trial version of its desktop-search software in October, and Yahoo! said last week it would have one out early next year. Another rival, Ask Jeeves, said yesterday it would introduce desktop search this week.

The companies are also working on free software for storing e-mail, publishing Web logs, posting digital photos, finding news articles and searching the Internet.

All are being offered to build a loyal-user base that could attract more advertising dollars from Web searches.

Search your (computer’s) heart

A rundown of MSN Toolbar Suite:

What is it? A test version of software that can search through files on a personal computer. The final version isn’t expected until early next year, but the test version is available for download at

What does it search? By default, it indexes only files in the My Documents folder and in the Outlook e-mail program. A user can expand that index to include the entire contents of the computer.

What’s required? Microsoft Windows XP or Windows 2000 (with the SP4 service pack). It also needs Internet Explorer 5.01 or later versions. To search e-mail, it needs Microsoft Outlook 2000 or later or Outlook Express 6.0 or higher.

What does it cost? It’s free. Analysts say Microsoft and other companies are offering free software tools to draw more people to their Web search engines — the big moneymaker on the Internet.

Source: Microsoft

“It’s driving revenue for them with keyword advertising,” said Sue Feldman, an analyst with IDC. “It’s not out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Like Google’s desktop search, MSN’s software initially scans a computer and builds an index of files it finds. During a search, the software returns to the index, which it updates regularly, and pulls a list of results.

Microsoft has offered the ability to search through files for years as part of the Windows operating system. But that technology never used the index method as a shortcut, making searches seem insufferably slow.

Search engines — the programs used to search the Internet — use indexing to quickly find Web sites, creating what amounts to a snapshot of the Internet they can reference.

MSN recently unveiled its own Web search engine — also in test form — that has indexed 5 billion documents, while Google’s index has 8 billion.

One at a time

Unlike Google’s desktop search, MSN can’t search computer files and the Web at the same time. A user must decide which category to search.

MSN also doesn’t search recently viewed Web sites — a feature of Google’s desktop search that has raised a chorus of privacy concerns — but it might offer that ability in the future, executives said.

“We thought that we would move more slowly on that and do a better job,” said Yusuf Mehdi, a corporate vice president at MSN, in a conference call with reporters and analysts yesterday.

As expected, MSN’s desktop search can quickly and accurately find files in Microsoft’s formats, such as Microsoft Word, Outlook and PowerPoint documents.

Its track record is a little spottier with file formats from other companies. It can search through Adobe PDF files but only if an extra plug-in is installed, and it can’t search for documents that use IBM’s Lotus Notes format.

For songs in the Windows Media or MP3 format, the search will also show the artist’s name and the musical genre, but only the title appears for songs in the format favored by Apple Computer’s iTunes.

Advantage, Microsoft

Forrester analyst Charlene Li said MSN’s desktop search has an advantage over Google’s in that the user can search by a file’s title, date, author, size and other categories. Google only searches by date and relevancy, she said.

But Li said that when she searched for a PowerPoint file with the phrase “work it out,” MSN’s search found the file but couldn’t show the part that contained that phrase. Google’s could.

“That was really powerful to me,” she said.

Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said Microsoft needs to come up with a more unified approach.

MSN’s multiple entry points into search are confusing, he said, and the division needs to better integrate search across the spectrum of standalone applications, including instant messaging and other programs.

“I don’t think they’ve given complete thought to how search needs to integrate across the desktop,” he said.

But Gartenberg and other analysts said the industry is still in the very early days of search technology.

Many desktop search programs are still in test phase, and final versions aren’t expected until next year.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or