Google has released an upgrade to its desktop search application. The new version includes a side panel that displays information from a variety of sources.
Google Desktop 2.0, which is in beta (or test) mode, includes a feature called Sidebar, which gives users access to email, news, weather, photos, stocks and syndicated website feeds, according to a Google press release.
"With Google Desktop 2.0, we want to help users sit back and watch the web come to them," said Nikhil Bhatla, Google Desktop product manager, in an interview.
Until now, Google Desktop has been a browser-based application, but Sidebar doesn't need a browser to run. Whenever necessary, browser windows will be launched from Sidebar to, for example, go to a website, or access Google Desktop features not included in Sidebar, he said.
The new interface runs on top of Google Desktop, so through Sidebar users can access any files and information that Google Desktop can index and retrieve, according to Bhatla.
For example, Sidebar locates email messages stored in Outlook or Thunderbird (Mozilla Foundation's email client), Bhatla said. Sidebar can also automatically show messages from Google's Gmail webmail service, even if users haven't configured their Gmail accounts to download messages to their hard drives, he said.
Sidebar also customises the content it shows users based on the websites they visit. For example, if a user frequently visits a site that offers a content syndication feed, Sidebar will automatically display the site's RSS (really simple syndication) or Atom feed, Bhatla said. Sidebar also adjusts the news stories, weather information and individual stock data it shows based on a user's online activities.
Users don't need to register with Google to use Google Desktop, so the web history information Sidebar uses to personalise its content is tied to a user's IP address and a cookie.
Sidebar also has a scratch pad where users can save notes and see a list of recently viewed web sites, Bhatla added.
If multiple users have individual Windows accounts on a single PC, each user can create their own Google Desktop index, which isn't accessible to the other users.
Su-Li Walker, an analyst at Yankee Group, believes that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have been busy developing and improving their desktop search applications but haven't done much to market these wares to consumers.
"Most consumers aren't aware of these applications yet," Walker said. "Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all have quite a bit to do in terms of educating the consumer base about the use of these desktop search applications."
Another new feature in Google Desktop 2.0 is Quick Find, which lets a user search for files and applications by typing only part of a name, Google said.
Search and indexing capabilities have been extended, so the software can now index instant messaging chats from MSN Messenger, as well as other Outlook data beyond email, such as contacts, appointments and tasks.
Google has also expanded the API (application programming interface) available for the application, so that developers can create plug-ins for Sidebar. A list of plug-ins is available at http://desktop.google.com/plugins.
Google Desktop 2.0 is currently only available in English, although Google promises "additional language support to follow shortly”. The free application runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above, and can be downloaded for free from http://desktop.google.com.