Apple details plans to Spotlight desktop search

Recently posted document throws a little light on a key feature of the next edition of Mac OS X.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
With search technology in the spotlight, Apple Computer is making better ways to find desktop files the cornerstone of its next version of the Mac OS X operating system.

Discussion of search, which has focused on the Internet--Google's public offering, Microsoft's upcoming release of its home-brewed MSN Search--is moving quickly onto the desktop. Although it is largely sitting out the Web search safari, Apple is making it easier to hunt things on a hard drive.

A document posted last week on Apple's site gave details of its Spotlight desktop search feature. When it unveiled the OS X upgrade, Tiger, in June, Apple spoke only in broad strokes about Spotlight. The new document goes into more detail on how Spotlight will work and what it will be capable of doing when it ships in the first half of next year.

Essentially, 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 you try to remember where you stored travel information for your upcoming vacation, Spotlight already knows which files contain the words "Jamaica" or "hotel."

Subject to immediate search
Among the document types Spotlight can catalogue:
•  plain text
•  Rich Text Format (RTF)
•  Portable Document Format (PDF)
•  Microsoft Word
•  Microsoft Excel
•  Mac OS X Mail
•  Address Book contacts
•  Photoshop images
•  MP3 and AAC audio
•  QuickTime movies
•  JPEG, GIF, TIFF, PNG and EXIF images

"This is really going to transform the way people use a personal computer," said Ken Bereskin, Apple's senior director of Mac OS X marketing. "You can (just) look at the way search engines transformed the way people used the Internet."

Today, most people rely on a system of file folders to organize information. To find travel plans, you might have to remember how you organized a series of subfolders: Documents contains Personal, which contains Travel, which contains a folder called "Jamaica."

With Spotlight, such worries go out the window. A simple search will find all things Jamaican. There's even a concept in Tiger called Smart Folders that will pull together files based on a combination of keywords or file attributes.

Search and destroy
The move of the search wars to the desktop is already well under way. Companies large and small are scrambling to release software that can quickly scour a user's hard drive.

Google has already unveiled its desktop search software, while Microsoft has promised similar capability by year's end. Yahoo and AOL are also poised to enter the market. They face competition from start-ups as well, including Copernic, X-1 and Vivisimo.

Such software also indexes files and goes beyond looking at file names, spotting keywords from within documents, e-mail and even e-mail attachments.

However, operating-system makers like Apple and Microsoft can go a step further by building improved search into the OS. 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.

And different types of files can have different types of metadata. MP3 files might have artist and album information, while digital photos might contain information about when a picture was taken, what type of camera was used and whether the picture was taken in portrait or landscape mode.

"There is a ton of amazing information that comes out of digital images," Bereskin said.

Out of the gate, Tiger will be able to make sense of more than a dozen file types. More importantly, Apple is making the technology easily accessible to developers, who can add filters to make sure that their content is understood as well.

One can search for "Bob" and find not only documents that have Bob anywhere in the text, but also documents created by someone named Bob, or even one that was sent by a Bob.

Developers can also 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.

Microsoft demonstrated similar abilities when it showed off Longhorn and its powerful WinFS file system at a developer conference in October 2003. However, it is unclear what search enhancements will come as part of Longhorn, now that WinFS has been decoupled from Longhorn.

Queried on Wednesday about the revamped Longhorn, a Microsoft representative would not say whether any desktop search enhancements are planned. Longhorn is slated to ship in the second half of 2006.