Google Reportedly Working on Desktop Search

Google is at work developing a desktop application designed to search personal computer hard drives, according to a report in today’s New York Times.

Citing “several people with knowledge of the company’s plans,” the article says Google has been working on the project, code-named Puffin, for about a year. It also says the new software will be offered as a free download, raising the possibility it could be supported by advertising — as are most of Google’s consumer search tools. Google didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

A Google desktop application is viewed primarily as a reaction to Microsoft’s moves in the search space. It would give Google a more prominent position on the largely Microsoft-dominated desktop. (Google already has a browser toolbar and a “deskbar” that provides Web search functionality outside the browser.) The application would head off Microsoft’s own plans to provide an improved search experience in its long-delayed next Windows version, code-named Longhorn.

Rumors of the new Google software come the day after the company issued a set of “Software Principles” on its Web site. “A proposal to help fight deceptive Internet software” posits software shouldn’t trick users into installing it; should offer full disclosure of its functions; and be easily removable. The proposal also says software shouldn’t spy on users and shouldn’t be bundled with other programs that violate such principles. The company says it’s issuing the guidelines in response to “a growing disregard for your rights as computer users.” The statement could also be interpreted as a sign Google is giving a lot of thought to ad-supported software.

While ad support for an application that searches personal computer hard drives might be considered a touchy subject on the privacy front, Google has shown, through its defense of its Gmail ad targeting, it’s not hesitant to break new ground in adware.

So far, most companies working on hard-drive search are pursuing a traditional software license model. Idealab-funded X1 Technologies has garnered positive reviews for its X1 software, sold for $99 as a standalone or bundled with other commercially available software. Another firm, dtSearch, sells its desktop version for $199. HotBot, a Terra Lycos property, is the only prominent player with a free solution. It unveiled a free desktop search app, HotBot Desktop, as part of its browser toolbar earlier this year. Of course, both the Macintosh and Windows operating systems offer search capabilities.

Google’s move onto the desktop occurs just as desktop-dominating Microsoft builds its own answer to the Web search engine. The software giant has made no secret of its plans, but hasn’t yet said when it will launch its new search engine.

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