Google Inc. released free software yesterday that lets people simultaneously search the Web and their personal computers for information, a move analysts described as a potential blow to rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. in the race to woo more searchers.
Google Desktop Search offers what Microsoft has been trying to develop for more than a year -- the ability to let people enter one search term and see files relevant to that topic from both their computers and the Web displayed together.
Computers with the new Google Desktop Search are on display in New York at yesterday's debut.
(Mary Altaffer -- AP)
"This gives Google a huge first-mover advantage in desktop search," said Charlene Li, principal search analyst for Forrester Research, a market research firm. She predicted the software would be especially popular with heavy computer users, who store many files on their machines and need help sifting through them.
"It's ironic that until now, it's been easier to search 6 billion documents on the Internet than it has been to find a single file on your hard drive," Li said.
Google's new software, available as a download from desktop.google.com, not only indexes the full text of e-mail messages and word processing documents, it also gives people the option of creating a searchable archive of all Web pages they visit and all instant messages they send and receive with America Online Inc. software.
"The goal for the application was for it to behave like a photographic memory for your computer," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. "So in addition to being able to search all of the files on your computer, it also indexes the Web pages you have seen."
Some privacy advocates raised concerns about the new software, since the product indexes everything from online communications to files stored on a personal computer. Google said no documents from any user's computer would be sent to the company, stored on its computers or saved anywhere on the Web. And the company noted that the software gives users the ability to block it from recording online chats and visits to Web sites, and separately provides a way for people to turn it off for 15-minute intervals.
But Gary Price, a search specialist who runs a Web reference site called ResourceShelf.com, said the new archiving capability could raise privacy issues by making it easier for someone to sit down at a person's computer and snoop through his hard drive. That could be troubling in the workplace, he said: "In a couple of minutes, people can search your entire computer and find anything in any one of your documents."
David M. Burns, chief executive of Copernic Technologies Inc., which recently released its own free desktop search product, said his company spurned the idea of combining Web and computer searches for privacy reasons. When people are looking for private material, they may unwittingly choose the unified search option, he said, which will send their keyword over the Internet to run a Web search at Google.
"I don't think people will like having their private keyword sent over the public Internet," Burns said.