Apple centers Spotlight on desktop search

CEO Steve Jobs touts his company's innovations in search coming with next Mac OS X upgrade.

SAN FRANCISCO--Not to miss the search beat reverberating throughout the PC market, Apple Computer chief Steve Jobs touted the company's innovations in desktop search coming with its next Mac OS X upgrade.

Specifically, Jobs said Apple has a superior vantage point from which to build in technology for finding files buried on the operating system, compared with third-party application makers launching products for the same purpose. Google, for example, has said it plans to create a desktop search tool for Macs.

"When you build it into the operating system, you can do things that you can't when it's sitting off to the side," Jobs said Tuesday during his keynote speech at the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Last June, Apple highlighted new search technology called Spotlight that it said would feature in an upcoming version of its operating system, Tiger. In November, the company gave greater detail about how the technology works in documents posted to its Web site.

Jobs previewed the feature during his speech Tuesday, and said the update is on track to be delivered in the first half of 2005. "And that is going to be long before Longhorn," Jobs said, in an apparent dig at rival Microsoft's much-heralded search technology for the operating system. Longhorn is slated to ship in the second half of 2006.

Spotlight is an indexing engine that tracks every file as it is created, opened or changed, copied or deleted. By constantly tracking all of those files, as well as their complete contents, Spotlight can then quickly and powerfully search the files at a moment's notice. When a person tries to remember where he or she stored travel information for an upcoming vacation, for instance, Spotlight already knows which files contain the words "Jamaica" or "hotel."

Spotlight can catalog plain text, Microsoft Office documents, Address Book contacts, MP3 and AAC audio and QuickTime movies, among other files. There's even a concept in Tiger called Smart Folders that will pull together files based on a combination of keywords or file attributes.

Jobs also demonstrated a feature called Dashboard that includes numerous research tools. Those include a flight tracker, a dictionary and thesaurus, a stock look-up service, a language translator and a currency converter, as well as links to an address book and calendar.

Developers also can write programs that incorporate Spotlight-based searching, not possible with downloaded software such as Google's that might not be on a particular user's hard drive.

Blinkx, a desktop-search software maker, introduced a Mac version of its software this week, in one of the first search applications for the computer.

On the PC, numerous companies including Yahoo, Google, Ask Jeeves, X1 Technologies and Microsoft's MSN have introduced software to scour files on the hard drive.

Operating system makers like Apple and Microsoft say they can go a step further by building improved search into the OS, however. Because the operating system controls the file system, it can enable deeper searching of files, attaching additional information, or metadata, to each file. Tiger has such a metadata store, which is what makes Spotlight possible.

Still, Spotlight choked in the Macworld spotlight at one point. While demonstrating the search tool, Jobs' machine locked on an image that he had accidentally called up. "That's why we have back-up systems here," he said.

CNET's Scott Ard and Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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