Our search problem

Apple's Spotlight searchLots of people are playing with Google’s Desktop Search as an alternative to the terrible built in Microsoft Windows search features. On the Mac, of course, we have Spotlight, and Microsoft claims that their new Longhorn product, now called Windows Vista, will have wonderful integrated search as well. These search systems index the entire computer, allow you to search from the desktop, and display a combined list of all different document types that contain the relevent words.

Which is all well and good.

So here is my problem. On the web I have Google, which gives me powerful searching. It also has taken away some of the tools that other search engines allowed, like boolean operators (Windows AND Doors NOT Microsoft). They don’t seem inclined to put them back. Sure, this makes search easier for normal users, but it takes away some of the power. Even more powerful are things like regular expressions, a language for constructing highly complex searches looking for different combinations of letters and numbers and patterns in very sophisticated (and confusing to understand) ways. Again, not a tool for Joe User, but if search is really becoming central to our lives as Google (and Apple, and Microsoft) claim, we need more sophisticated tools for searching. Booleans and regular expressions are some of those tools.

Other tools we need: pluralization and spelling derivation. If I’m searching for “color” I also probably want “colour,” “colors,” and “colours.” If I’m searching for “person” I might also want “people.” And I want accents. If I’m searching for “facade,” I also want “façade.”

Some search tools do some of these things, some do all. Some are better than others at indexing and at finding. If search is so pervasive, I want good search *everywhere.* Sure when I use Google to search the web I get good results, but when I use the search field in my blog I often can’t find what I’m looking for. Spotlight on my desktop is good at finding some things, but doesn’t let me do sophisticated queries. The search built into my mail client has some good filters but is not very extensible or customizable. And the search built into my web browser is nearly useless.

What I suspect and hope will happen is that Apple will release a SearchKit system to integrate search across their operating system, much as they have integrated displaying web pages with WebKit. This ensures that everything displays the same and takes advantage of all of the built in features of the operating system. A powerful SearchKit framework should make it trivial for programs to incorporate powerful, extensible, customizable search. Apple seems to be ahead of Microsoft on this one, integrating their Spotlight search into the mail and address book programs. But I expect Microsoft to do something similar. And hey, maybe Google will release something like that as well, and let people built Google search functionality into their programs.

Of course we will continue to have the same problem — different search systems with different algorithms and different features will behave differently, continuing to make our lives interesting. But at least things will be, on the whole, better, just as they are continuing to get better, slowly, in fits and starts, on the pervasive search front. Next thing we need to figure out: something more useful than our file and folder and desktop metaphor for interacting with our computers. Because come on folks, I love the current concept, but there are have got to be some interesting new ideas out there for things that do it better.

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