At the Professional Developers Conference 2003 in Los Angeles last year (see my exhaustive coverage of that show), Microsoft chairman Bill Gates touted the searching innovations that would go into Longhorn, the next generation Windows version that's now due in mid-2006. In a way, by detailing the new desktop search features Microsoft was working on so early, Gates had thrown down the gauntlet. In today's PC world, desktop search is a miserable, slow affair, and as Microsoft executives are fond of pointing out, it shouldn't take longer to find a file you know is on your hard drive than it takes to perform a Web search.

However, Gates was also giving his competitors a leg up on Microsoft. And since announcing its Longhorn desktop search intentions, Microsoft's worst fears were realized. Other companies began copying the Microsoft desktop search strategy, knowing that the never-ending Longhorn delays would help them get to market sooner and appear to be nimbler and even more innovative, though it's sort of astonishing how transparent that latter claim is. Chief among these competitors are Apple and Google.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced in June 2004 that the next version of Mac OS X, due sometime in 2005, will include a desktop search feature called Spotlight. The Spotlight feature set is a rough subset of the desktop search features Gates discussed in late 2003, but presented to the user with Apple's standard graphical excellence. Spotlight, according to Apple, is a "radically new and lightning fast way to find anything saved on your personal computer. Email messages, contacts and calendars, along with files and folders, all show up in Spotlight results." Spotlight's biggest claims to fame, presumably, are its near-instant search results and support for document meta data, both of which are, again, planned features of Longhorn. But no matter. While Apple has been busy copping Windows features since Jobs returned to Apple in late 1996, the company's tiny market share ensures that very few people will benefit from Spotlight, despite Apple claims that it will deliver on desktop search a year before Microsoft ships Longhorn.

Then, in October 2004, Google released a buggy Google Desktop Search beta just two months after the company heard about Microsoft's plans to release a beta MSN desktop search tool by the end of 2004. Google Desktop Search "enables users to search their email, files, web history, and chats" using a task tray-based icon, from which you launch a local Web site that resembles the Google Web site. Search results are presented in Google's standard Spartan style, and you can also search both the Web and local files simultaneously (a feature first announced for Longhorn). The most notable feature of Google Desktop Search, so far, has been its widely-publicized security bugs.

But back to that little bit about Microsoft announcing an MSN desktop search tool. While MSN has been characteristically secretive about its product plans, tidbits about the MSN desktop search tool had been trickling out of Redmond for months. In July 2004, at the annual Microsoft Financial Analysts Meeting, MSN corporate vice president Yusuf Mehdi discussed how the company would bridge Web and desktop search.

"This year ... we'll be shipping our first-ever Microsoft-built MSN Search system," he said. "[It offers] local PC and e-mail searching that we have built as a joint effort across the company, the Microsoft Office Team, the Microsoft Research Team, the Knowledge Interchange Team, and the folks on the Longhorn Team, and our MSN Search engineers. We have put together now a working version of Local PC File Search. This code is working very fast. It has been based on years of work in the company. It's not like we just started the thing a couple of weeks ago. We have made a lot of progress in the last couple of months on it. And this service is going to be one way I think we'll really move beyond what's out there today."

And in August 2004, Christopher Payne, the vice president of MSN Search, discussed with attendees at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, California MSN's plans for "algorithmic" desktop search engine. Here's what he said. "We'll be launching later this year the ability not only to search the Web but also to search the desktop. For users, it's disappointing to them that it's harder to get to an e-mail in Outlook or an Exchange store than to get a Web file." He also noted that MSN would use technology from a recent acquisition, desktop search company Lookout Software.

Larry Grothaus, the Lead Product Manager of MSN Marketing at Microsoft, told me recently that Microsoft began refocusing its MSN division about a year ago. "Internally, we've got a Communications Services Group, and we've got an Information Services Group," he told me. "We work across both groups seamlessly, however. For example, MSN Messenger 7 is in our Communications Services Group, but it integrates with MSN Search, which is part of the Information Services Group. We're trying to make sure we're taking advantages of technologies that can be used across the organization."

Within MSN's Information Services Group, all the search work, MSN Music, and MSN Shopping are the focus. Meanwhile, the Communication Services Group is responsible for the MSN client, Messenger, Hotmail, and MSN Spaces. Each of these products is in the midst of some sort of revision, and by late 2004, MSN began releasing a slew of new product versions in rapid succession. To date, the company has shipped a technology preview and then a full beta of its new MSN Search, for Web-based searching; a beta version of MSN Messenger 7.0, its instant messaging application; and a beta and the final shipping version of the MSN Music online music service. Finally, on Monday, December 13, MSN delivered a public beta of its MSN Toolbar Suite, a product I've been testing for a few weeks now. Here are my initial impressions.

MSN Toolbar Suite: Where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts

While the blandly named MSN Toolbar Suite may conjure up a 2.0 version of the MSN Toolbar for Internet Explorer that was first issued in March 2004, the product is actually quite a bit more impressive and aggressive than that. The original MSN Toolbar was somewhat fairly criticized as being a Google toolbar rip-off, with its nearly identical feature set. It also snagged over 50 million downloads, which isn't shabby.

The new MSN Toolbar Suite is quite a bit more accomplished than its predecessor, offering a number of toolbar-based entry points to both local and Web searching. Each of these entry points--including the MSN Deskbar, MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Office Outlook, MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Windows Explorer, and MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Internet Explorer--can search your hard drives, applications, and email as well as the Web. Specifically, you can search all Outlook items (Outlook 2000 and newer, including email, contacts, calendar appointments, and tasks), Outlook Express 6.0 and newer email and attachments, all Microsoft Office document types (including OneNote notes), plain text, Web pages, Adobe PDF files, AVI, Windows Media Audio, Windows Media Video, JPEG, GIF, BMP, and MP3 files, and the contents of all saved MSN Messenger chat sessions (if you've enabled that feature).

We'll soon take a look at how those search results appear, but first, let's examine each of the MSN Toolbar Suite search entry points.

MSN Deskbar

The MSN Deskbar provides local file and Web search directly from desktop, using a taskbar-based toolbar that sits next to your system tray (Figure). The Deskbar offers two unique features, one very useful, one less so, called word wheeling and aliases.

The word wheeling functionality delivers instant search results as you type. To see it in action, click the text entry area and begin typing a search phrase, such as paul. When you click the Deskbar, the As you type, the Deskbar search results pane appears (Figure). Then, as you type, results pour into the pane (Figure) and are refined as you continue typing (Figure). This functionality--which Microsoft first promised in Longhorn--works amazing well, and doesn't appear to bog the system down in the slightest. And it's inclusion on the taskbar means that the tool will be available to you no matter how you've organized the windows on your desktop.

"Search results are generated dynamically as you type," Grothaus told me, "and they're categorized by type. When you click on an item, it opens in the appropriate application.

The second unique functionality, which I find a bit less compelling, is called aliases. This lets you access a list of commonly-used shortcuts to applications, documents, frequently-accessed Web sites, or whatever, using the Deskbar. To do so, you can click on the Deskbar text entry area and type the "@" character to access a list of aliases-related hints and tips (Figure). You can also execute applications with the = sign, such as by using =calc to launch the Windows Calculator.

MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Office Outlook

The MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Office Outlook lets you search Outlook email, attachments, and other items by default, or optionally will search other local files or the Web (Figure). In my testing, the search results returned all desktop files by default, which I assume is a bug in the beta version, but it's easy enough to filter the search results to just email. (See below for more information about how these toolbars return search results.)

Of all the toolbars included in this suite, the Outlook Toolbar has proven to be the most welcome. That's because I receive over 100 legitimate emails a day (in addition to several hundred spam messages, most of which are caught by server-side and client-side anti-spam solutions) and it's often painful to find email that I know I've received, because I use an IMAP email server, which Outlook isn't particular adept at interacting with. For my email searching needs, the default "Find" function in Outlook is almost completely broken, and even "Advanced Find" frequently can't find the email I'm looking for. However, the MSN Toolbar for Outlook is Godsend, and works as you'd expect. This satisfies a huge need.

One further comment about the Outlook toolbar. Though Microsoft did purchase Lookout Software, which made an Outlook search toolbar, Grothaus tells me that virtually no Lookout code went into the MSN Toolbar for Outlook. Instead, the team leveraged much of the experience and development assets from Lookout, but created its own code. But that doesn't mean the new toolbar won't appeal to former Lookout users. "One thing Lookout customers made very clear was that they want to be able to perform a search and then drop found items into an email," he told me. So the MSN Toolbar does just that, emulating its Lookout predecessor.

MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Internet Explorer

Like its lackluster predecessor, the MSN Toolbar for IE lets you search the Web, highlight search results, block pop-up ads, and perform other similar functions. However, the new version adds a bunch of new features, most of which are quite welcome. As you might expect, you can now search the Web, your local desktop, or various subsets of each from the toolbar. You can also use a secure Form Fill function to automatically fill in Web forms with your name, address, and other personal information (Figure). The pop-up blocker is XP SP2 aware, so if you're using that version of IE, it will shut off automatically. And a new Highlight Viewer applet gives you a handy full-page thumbnail of the currently viewed page, which can be handy when your search result is found in a single sentence 3/4 of the way down the page (Figure).

MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Windows Explorer

Like its Web-based brethren, the MSN Toolbar for Windows Explorer optionally sits in all Explorer windows and provides you with identical searching capabilities to those found in the IE Toolbar (Figure). You can also access a history of previous searches in the Folders view (Figure) if you turn that on, though this feature isn't saved past your current session: Once you close the current Explorer window, your previous searches disappear. However, the toolbar retains a history of saved searches in its text entry area, which you can access simply by clicking on it (Figure).

Longhorn who?

The most impressive aspect of the MSN Toolbar Suite, perhaps, is the way it presents search results. These results (Figure) almost completely encapsulate the entire desktop search feature set that Microsoft first promised for Longhorn, except that it's available today. And then consider that competitors such as Apple and Google tried to preempt Microsoft by announcing similar features, and yet were both unable to deliver final versions before Microsoft simply shipped the MSN Toolbar Suite. It's astonishing, both that Microsoft was able to make this happen so quickly, and that it works so well.

Consider a typical search results page, which is filtered to "Everything" by default. You can hone these results by choosing other top-level filters, like Documents, Email, Music, Pictures & Videos, Meetings (Outlook-based), Favorites, and Programs. You can also use a More choice to further hone the search results. For example, instead of all document types, you can displays results that are just text documents, spreadsheets, or presentations.

You can also refine searches further in other ways. Right-click an item in the search results page and you'll see a pop-up menu (Figure) that offers relevant choices like Show Conversation (if the current item is an email message or attachment), Search for Person, Search for Date, Open Containing Folder, or Open With. If you double-click the item, it will open as you'd expect. That is, Outlook will display your Outlook-based email messages, and Word will display Word documents.

"We even do full text searches on PDF files," Grothaus told me. "We try to look at all the information that you might be looking for on your machine and present it back to you in a very easy to use, easy to sort, interface." Grothaus noted that you can sort search results by the various column headers (like Title, Author, Date, Size, Type, and Folder) and can even drag and drop files and other items from the search results presentation onto the Windows desktop.

The search engine used by the MSN Toolbar Suite uses, as you'd expect, indexing to speed searching. And like other index-based search tools (including those coming next year from Apple and Google), that means you need to give it some time to build the index of your desktop-based data so that it can provide instant search results when it comes time to actually perform a search. The amount of time this takes will vary according to the size of your PC's hard drives and the amount of data you store, but it seems to have taken just a few hours on the desktops and laptops I've tested, and is intelligent enough to turn off indexing when you actually use the machine. This prevents the search engine from killing performance.

Integrated innovation

In addition to the amazing search capabilities offered by the various toolbars in the MSN Toolbar Suite, it's worth noting that Microsoft is also building various "on-ramps" (as Microsoft calls them) to MSN search technologies from all of its products. Let's look at a few examples. Say you are an MSN Messenger user. The new MSN Messenger 7 client includes a new Search the Web text box (Figure) that lets you utilize MSN Search from that application. You can also highlight any text in an MSN Messenger chat window, right-click it, and choose Search the Web (Figure). Yikes!

But wait, that's just the beginning. Maybe you're using the new MSN Search beta to find out information about your favorite musical group. If you search for that band's name, the first link on MSN Search (Figure) will direct you to MSN Music, from which you can find out more information, or even buy music, which is kind of amazing. Even more amazing: You can perform that same search from the MSN Deskbar and achieve the same results. That means you can go from remembering you wanted a particular song to buying it in just a few seconds. This sort of functionality, ultimately, will change the way we use computers. This is revolutionary stuff.

This sort of integration is found throughout all of MSN's so-called Wave 10 products, which includes MSN Messenger 7, MSN Toolbar Suite, MSN Search, MSN Music, and even the recently released beta of MSN Spaces, a free "blog" service that makes it easy to set up a personal Web site online. It's so amazing that I'll be writing a lot more about these technologies on the SuperSite in the weeks ahead.

Timing and availability

MSN Toolbar Suite is available now as a public beta. The final version will ship in the first quarter of 2005, according to Grothaus. MSN Toolbar suite is free, and will work with Windows 2000 SP3 or Windows XP. To search for email or attachments, you will need Outlook 2000 or later or Outlook Express 6.0 or newer. You must have Internet Explorer 5.01 or later installed, but it does not have to be your default browser. However, IE will be used to display search results, regardless of which browser you've chosen as the default.

Conclusions

MSN Toolbar Suite is a revolutionary product that dramatically enhances the ways in which you can find information stored on your both PC and on the Web. Though it is only a beta version, I recommend that all SuperSite readers download and test this product as soon as possible. If you've been dismayed by the weak local desktop search support in Windows or Outlook, or have been looking for a more integrated search experience that ties together both local and Web searching, MSN Toolbar Suite is the answer. And if you've been waiting, wistfully, for the seemingly ever-delayed Longhorn to deliver an awesome desktop search experience, wait no more. It's here today, thanks to the MSN Toolbar Suite. Highly recommended.