posted 31 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 3
Search hits the desktop
Desktop search tools are becoming an essential part of the information-retrieval technology mix. By Jessica Twentyman
A new generation of knowledge workers is entering the workforce, and from day one, they are making a single, uncompromising demand of their new employers, according to Lee Phillips, director of intelligence solutions at search engine company
In many cases, says Phillips, that means search tools that will enable them to mine vast volumes of data to find relevant pieces of information whether that information is held on the web, in back-end systems, or increasingly, on their own desktops.
“Young professionals have grown up using powerful technology to search the internet and to comb school and university libraries for the information they want or need,” he says. “They naturally enter the corporation with an expectation that they’ll have equally powerful tools at their disposal in their professional roles.”
Unfortunately, the reality for many of today’s employees is that they do not have access to such tools. All too often, information is difficult, if not impossible, to track down. According to figures from US market research company the Delphi Group, employees spend on average 30 per cent of their time searching for information, resources and answers, yet only 20 per cent of an enterprise’s knowledge is retrievable.
If that is true, then the bloated corporate PC, stuffed with valuable personal and company documents and information, must shoulder its part of the blame for the situation. With that in mind, many of the world’s leading search engine vendors are turning their attention to the desktop and in helping end-users to locate information stored on it.
Their thinking is based on two key assumptions: First, that personal documents (of the kind that typically reside on the desktop PC) have a higher, more immediate relevance for decision-making than those retrieved from the internet or corporate intranet; second, and perhaps more importantly, that personal documents (and existing tacit knowledge) help to contextualise impersonal material collected from an external source.
This offers an important area for product expansion at a time when many search vendors are attempting to downplay a creeping but undeniable commoditisation of their flagship enterprise search products, used for interrogating back-end servers and databases for information.
Accordingly, the past year has seen a flurry of activity among the specialists as they jockey for a position in the emerging enterprise-desktop-search market. Many of the earliest products came from consumer-oriented companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft who targeted home PC users. These tools scan and index much of a PCs hard drive, enabling users to search their computers in much the same way that an internet search engine enables them to search the web and providing desktop search results alongside web results.
Not only that, but these tools were free. As a consequence, they were quickly picked up by enterprise users – often those who had already installed them on their own PCs at home and found them useful - and installed on company desktops.
That has, undoubtedly, created concerns for IT managers worried that these consumer tools did not meet corporate security requirements and were not sufficiently sophisticated to provide the functions that their existing enterprise-search products do: Customisation of the user interface, flexibility for visualisation of results and most important, group-wide administration and index load-balancing.
As early as December 2004, analysts at IT market-research company Gartner were telling them that they were right to have these concerns about consumer desktop search products, Google in particular. “Because of the lack of functions and the security risk, discourage the use of Google Desktop Search within your business,” cautioned Gartner analyst Whit Andrews. Instead, he advised, companies should be looking to deploy “a business-ready, supportable, secure” search engine that has been specifically designed to meet the needs of corporate desktop search. “Failure to satisfy workers with an appropriate desktop search engine will result in unauthorised installations of Google Desktop Search and other similar products,” he warned.
In response, various search specialists are launching a whole new category of search products designed to tackle the specific challenges presented by the enterprise PC. In November 2004, for example, UK-based search specialist Autonomy announced IDOL Enterprise Desktop Search, which combines office documents, e-mail, websites, new and multimedia content from the internal network, internet and local data sources in a single query generated automatically from the context of a user’s open documents.
In September 2005, consumer search giant Google announced an enterprise desktop search tool in the
Like the earlier consumer desktop search product, Google Desktop for Enterprise is available as a free download and offers a similar toolbar, but can also search Lotus Notes and offers enhanced security, as well as functionality to let IT managers easily deploy and manage the product on a company-wide basis.
Not to be out beaten in the race to address the high expectations of that new generation of information workers,
The local index is the key to desktop search tools. There is much variety in the types of queries that can be executed against a desktop index, from simple keywords to sophisticated linguistic analysis. Likewise, there is a wide variety in terms of how the results are ranked and displayed, including impressive graphical formats, and what you can do with those results within the context of the search application, such as forwarding a document by e-mail or copying text from the preview window to paste into a document open in another PC application.
But the desktop search market throws up some tricky challenges for the enterprise search suppliers such as Autonomy,
They will also need to provide tight integration with their existing enterprise search products, because in the corporate environment, a search that begins on the desktop may not necessarily end up there. On the positive side, however, desktop search may provide an interesting cross-sell proposition – by selling new desktop search tools to existing enterprise search customers and by persuading new desktop search clients to invest further in their enterprise products.
Ultimately, the real challenge for all suppliers of enterprise desktop search products will be the same: supporting a burgeoning number of non-Microsoft desktop applications. Currently, that kind of support varies wildly in existing tools. Some are limited in terms of the file types they will index, such as Microsoft Office files. Others will index and retrieve additional document formats such as Adobe PDF and metadata from audio, video and image files. Many will index e-mail databases, and a few will add contacts, calendars and other PIM data. A few can also handle some types of instant message history and RSS feed.
For that reason, selecting and buying an enterprise desktop search tool will likely be a complex affair, perhaps incorporating a full audit of all corporate PCs in order to determine what information sources users need to search.
The news, however, is good for companies that handle that process shrewdly and with great attention to detail, says Andrews of Gartner. “Workers who adopt [desktop] search tools can realise substantial productivity benefits,” he says. But, he warns, these benefits can only justify spending money on robust, proven tools from vendors experienced with desktop technologies, individual and corporate-level customer support, and vertical expertise in areas such as compliance, litigation support or scientific research.