The software makers have made scouring for information a top priority. In large part, that's because hard drives have continued to grow, stretching the limits of old ways of accessing information, such as looking through folders.
Apple and Microsoft are building powerful search features into the next versions of their desktop operating systems.
The companies' grip on Mac and PC software gives them a head start in trying to emulate Google's Internet search success on the desktop.
"We're filling those drives with a lot of contact information, calendar information, tons of e-mail and our photos, music and videos," Phil Schiller, a senior vice president at Apple, said in an interview. "Increasingly, it's getting difficult to find the info we want and find in all these increasingly varied file formats."
Apple promises that Tiger, the next version of Mac OS X, will be able to track down information that can't be found by hand using a search engine feature called "Spotlight." The technology,this week, is planned for the first half of next year. Microsoft, too, is planning to make search tools a centerpiece of , its next update of Windows, which is not expected to debut until 2006 at the earliest.
The focus on desktop search comes as profits have exploded for makers of Web navigation tools such as Google and Yahoo--success that's thrown a spotlight on technology that can help guide consumers through a mounting glut of digital information. Google islater this year, with hopes of raising more than $2.7 billion, based on expectations from its fast-growing Web search advertising business.
While the stakes are high on the Internet, they may be even higher on the desktop, where makers of operating systems such as Microsoft and Apple are in a unique position to provide access to stored files. Desktop data storage needs are soaring, thanks to the popularity of digital photography, music and other personal applications, but progress has largely stalled on this front since developers hit upon the file folder metaphor nearly two decades ago. Now developers are making better desktop navigation a top priority.
"Search has become an integral part of the whole PC experience," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "It's not just about hierarchical file systems anymore, but being able to find information...wherever it is that I happen to have it."
The Spotlight feature in Tiger keeps an index of files on a Mac. It also lists each file's contents and other data. When a search is launched, Spotlight is able to quickly gather not just files named "Washington," but also those with "Washington" in them and even ones created by "George Washington," for example.
Spotlight is an outgrowth of the search capabilities that Apple built into iTunes and its e-mail program. Schiller said the effort to expand search throughout the operating system predates the Panther release of Mac OS X last October.
"This is a problem we have recognized for a while," Schiller said. "There has been a lot of energy and time put into this."
Microsoft has outlined a similar set-up in the search engine it plans for Longhorn, though it has offered fewer details.
Apple and Microsoft are not of one mind when it comes to search, though. "I think we're talking about very, very different approaches," Gartenberg said.
Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger
Expected release date: First half of 2005
Key Features: Spotlight, an improved search engine; improved videoconferencing in iChat; Dashboard, which offers one-key access to small applications; new graphics and video engines.
Expected release date: First half of 2006 (internal goal)
Key Features: WinFS, a new file system with improved search; Avalon, a new graphics and presentation engine; and Indigo, a Web services architecture.
Price: not announced
Apple has said its search efforts will focus only on the desktop, while Microsoft sees a need to also scour the Internet. Microsoft is targeting Google's stranglehold on Internet search while also seeing a potential incursion on the desktop from Google, as the search giant expands into e-mail and the searching of mail messages.
Gartenberg did note that there is enough time, before either operating system ships, for the makers to shift gears. "Longhorn is far from complete, and we haven't seen the final Tiger, either," he said.
But Matt Pilla, the client product manager for Windows, has indicated that Microsoft's Internet search efforts will be distinct from the improved PC search that comes with Longhorn.
"It's too early to provide details on Longhorn, but its focus will not be on Internet search," Pilla said in a statement. "Instead, Longhorn will be focused on helping people find, relate and act on data on their desktop."
To improve desktop search, Microsoft is turning to a new file system, dubbed WinFS, the result of a to revamp Windows search technology. In the initial releases of Longhorn, WinFS will let users search their local hard drives for information stored in nearly any format, according to Microsoft.
But the full promise of WinFS--to enable people to search not only on local PCs, but also across the network--won't be fully in place until the, according to Microsoft.
Schiller said Apple will be able to implement Spotlight without requiring a new file system, though it is adding a way for the Mac OS to index all the additional information, or metadata, that is part of files such as music and digital pictures.
Tiger's head start
One thing Apple has on its side is timing, as Tiger is scheduled to arrive a year before Longhorn. But it's unclear how much of a financial or market edge that will be for Apple.
"Certainly, there is a psychological advantage in having your next-generation operating system out in advance of the competition," Gartenberg said. "There are certainly some bragging rights that go along with that. That is going to make the folks in Cupertino happy."
There has also been a fair amount of rhetoric about who is copying whom. Apple this weekat its developer conference in San Francisco with slogans such as "Redmond, start your photocopiers" and "Redmond, we have a problem."
Schiller said it was a call to rally Apple's developer base more than an anti-Microsoft marketing campaign. "It's also just a fun way to explain the truth, which is that there is some blatant copying going on of the Mac OS," he added.
Some say Apple should be careful about such finger-pointing, givenbetween Dashboard, an information display feature planned for Tiger, to Konfabulator, a third-party program for Macs. Dashboard gives people a simple way to see constantly updated information such as the time and stock tickers. Microsoft plans a similar feature, known as Sidebar, for Longhorn.
In the end, the Longhorn-Tiger competition may be more of a war of words. People will have already made a decision to buy a Mac or a PC before they consider getting the upgrade. And for new computer buyers, the operating system is likely to be just one of many factors.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has more than just the Windows team focused on tackling search. Pilla said that search is athat is within many Microsoft units, including those handling Windows, Office and MSN.
"There is no one single place or definition for search," he said. "People want to search their computer, their intranet and the Internet at different times and in different contexts. We want to make sure we support all of them well."