This week's desktop search frenzy is much bigger than the desktop. It actually signals the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we will interact with information.
The Legacy Of...The Folder
Many of us want to keep things "organized." We want to put the right files in the right folders so we'll be able to find them later. We want to organize our vacation photos. We want to organize our music (sometimes autobiographically). We want to put our desktop things on our Desktop, and our documents in the Documents folder. The folder itself provides the metadata that, in theory, helps us to effectively locate what we're looking for when we need it later.
Distributed creation of content, however, broke this. When millions of people are creating content (whether in the form of web pages, blogs, or what have you), only a miniscule fraction of those people will go through the laborious step of explicitly stating how that information should be organized. The DMOZ, for example, states categorization of approximately four million web sites -- while Google lists over eight billion pages (yes, one is counting "sites," the other is counting "pages," but there's still a three-order-of-magnitude difference here...work with me). Organizing things is a pain. Let's not forget that Yahoo! started out as a directory which, although it still exists, has been depreciated and now only fills a minor role in the Y! universe.
When things got too massive, messy, and organic for the folder approach, search stepped in to fill the gap.
The Nearest Node
Until the desktop search tools started showing up, there was always an implicit distinction between things that were "local" and things that were "on the web," one primary difference being in how you located those things when you needed them. That difference has effectively vanished. And with that change, I would contend the Folder's days are numbered.
It is only a matter of time before the "flatness" of the web becomes mirrored in how people use their local systems, and maybe even in how those systems are organized. With a solid desktop search engine, why should I bother to put things in folders anymore? I can put everything in one place, and the search engine will find it for me. My job just got easier.
I no longer think of my machine as a separate entity from the Internet. It just happens to be the nearest node.
Of course, this only works well for things that are easily indexable. The images that are fairly flying from camera phones will still need to be indexed, as will the podcasts and the videos and all the other "rich media" out there. That is, until someone figures out a cost-effective way to automatically extract and index metadata from these types or artifacts*. (Hey Virage, are you listening?) I suppose in a way, Google's library project today is an extension of this as well -- a library itself is rich media, isn't it?
* - Thing to watch for: when "search" finds a way to effectively mine existing relational databases as well, in lieu of SQL
Others discussing desktop search:
Scoble: "MSN Toolbar Suite reactions from the blogosphere"
Charlene Li: "I believe that both MSN and Google (as well as their future competitors) will all develop more robust desktop search that can handle multiple files and give users flexibility and control over the search results."
Rajesh Jain: "As the various search engines battle to deliver relevant ads to users, the ultimate prize is the user desktop."
David Weinberger: "X1 beats Google desktop search in every regard but two: price and branding."
Mike Torres: "The command line of the future."
Michael Griffiths: "MSN Desktop search is doing allright...[but] even though it's been on for some 20 hours, uninterrupted time, it hasn't finished."
Alpha-Geek: "I don't want desktop search; I want digital lifestyle search."
Alex Barnett: "I'm still indexing."