Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Google Desktop

Some folks over in Redmond are getting rather nervous these days. You see, there's this upstart company who's been getting a little too big for its britches lately and may well interfere with Microsoft's plans for continued global domination. Google, once merely a simple, clean search engine, has morphed into a global giant with apparent empire-building aspirations of its own... and seven billion dollars in the bank to start things rolling.

With the release of the latest incarnation of Windows (Vista) on the horizon, Microsoft is, from what I have seen of the previews, banking on its customers simply upgrading because an upgrade is made available. Primarily, the new offering (at least in beta) is eye candy with some "borrowed" features and crippling digital rights management software thrown into the mix. On top of that, it is going to require significantly more computing horsepower than Windows XP to even run, and will be especially demanding on the graphics processor – translation: $$!

So far, I see few compelling reasons to purchase one of the seven – that's right, seven – versions of Vista soon to be gracing store shelves everywhere. There is no motivation for businesses to upgrade whatsoever that I can discern; heck, there are still huge numbers of corporations running on Windows 2000. Truth be told, most folks will probably obtain their first copy of Windows Vista by default with a new computer purchase.

So what does this have to do with Google? Well, the company has recently been releasing software at a furious rate, including many applications that transcend the operating system such as Gmail, Google Maps and Google Earth. Google doesn't care whether you are running Windows, Mac OSX, Linux – whatever. As long as you have a browser and any computer that will run it, you are in business. Sun Microsystems CEO and co-founder Scott McNealy's long standing assertion that "The network is the computer" is a vision that seems to be becoming reality under Google's guiding hand.

These programs utilize a technology known as AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML for those of you who were curious) to emulate the performance characteristics of desktop apps while existing solely on the Internet. The fact that there are no more annoying page refreshes, drag and drop is well supported and there are some great special visual effects that actually serve a purpose (reducing clutter) all point to the fact that the lines between desktop applications and Internet services have become blurry indeed, and if people eventually don't care what OS they are using, why would they pay for one? Linux advocates are salivating at the opportunity, and the "software as a servic" model will certainly gain steam over the coming years.

Now Google has extended its reach onto the computer user's desktop by releasing two further products: Google Talk and Google Desktop 2.0. While the former is simply a vanilla instant messenger with very basic functionality, if Google Desktop's second version is anything to judge by, future iterations will be significantly more robust.

Google Desktop is a fantastic free program that breaks down the barriers between online and offline content. Existing as either a full-featured sidebar (with optional hidden mode to preserve screen real estate), a floating search box or an unobtrusive task bar element, the search capability Google brings to the Web is extended to almost everything on your personal computer. Indexing Word documents, emails, previously visited web pages, text files, PDF documents, graphics, old chat sessions, applications, RSS feeds and so on, and presenting you with the search results for any query against that index for all sources at the same time, the Desktop 2.0 software is invaluable.

Not only is Google News truly comprehensive, it's very fast. I never use the tools Microsoft has included in Windows XP or Outlook to find anything anymore... they are simply too slow and too cumbersome. In fact, Google has included a search bar that incorporates Outlook and provides results for anything I might be searching for within that application – very handy indeed. These results are of course additionally available within Google Desktop. You can read email and get contact and appointment details without ever having to open Outlook at all.

If you use Desktop in full sidebar mode (I recommend it) by default it gives you many sources of information gleaned from both the ‘net and your own PC. Up to the minute news reports from all over the planet, the latest entries from your Gmail and Outlook inboxes, local weather reports, system usage statistics, a slideshow of your photos, a list of Web pages that are hot at the moment and even the latest RSS feeds from sites you have visited are all automatically added and available at a glance. There are sections for you to jot quick notes, create to-do lists, read stock reports and more, all in an easy to use and unobtrusive format that is totally customizable to your display preferences.

You can tell it what kind of news items you are not interested in receiving by simply right-clicking on the particular item and selecting that option, expand or collapse particular panels, eliminate sections you are not using, and, best yet, add panels that third parties have created or those you have even designed yourself! Google has created an interface that allows programmers to design very cool add-on products for Desktop, and even provide these for free on their site. You can get media players, cell phone interfaces, DVD and CD cataloguers and more, which all leverage the power of Google's search to add value to these offerings.

All this being said, I find myself struck by the stark contrast in how both MS and Google conduct themselves in terms of innovation. Given the rapid adoption of these alternative technologies, applications such as Firefox enjoying exponential growth, burgeoning interest and adoption of Linux and the increasing frustration with insecure bloatware and DRM on offer by Microsoft, Google can only be well served by current climate. Microsoft would be advised to examine nearby walls to determine whether there is anything of interest to be read...

Originally published in HUB Magazine, Connected column, May, 2006, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

Sidebar

As you can tell, I am very enthusiastic about the latest products from Google; there are however certain caveats you should be aware of when using them. In order to enable its more advanced features, Google Desktop 2.0 interacts with Google's servers passing information back and forth based on your various browsing habits. Ensure you read Google's privacy policy (easily done at install) to acquaint yourself with what will be transpiring. If you find it beyond your comfort level, simply disable that feature.

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