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Google Inc. upped the ante Thursday in the growing desktop search battle, introducing an application that combines Web results with those from a user’s hard drive.

In its beta release, Google Desktop Search supports only the most common file formats and applications. But Google plans in future releases to open access to application developers through an API, company officials told

Like desktop-search clients, Google’s application indexes and searches a user’s hard drive for Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express e-mails and files in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint Excel and text formats.

But it also draws results from Internet Explorer’s history of visited Web sites as well as from AOL Instant Messenger sessions, the company announced.

What stands out about Google’s approach, analysts said, is that the search company has merged a user’s local results with Web results all within Google’s well-known Web-site interface. When they conduct a combined search, users are taken to Google’s site, where desktop results appear in a highlighted area above the typical Web results.

Users can choose to search only their desktops, which appear in a local Web page. But in its own testing, the Mountain View, Calif., company found that users care less about where information is stored and more about being able to find it, said Marissa Mayer, Google’s director of consumer Web products.

“Users no longer understand the difference between their hard drive and the Web,” Mayer said in a discussion with “All they can remember is that they’ve seen something.”

For the beta launch, Google focused on file formats from applications with the highest market share, which explains the support for Microsoft files and AOL’s IM, Mayer said.

Google Desktop does not search for common Web data exchange formats such as Adobe Systems Inc.’s PDF (Portable Document Format), nor does it retrieve Web history information from alternative browsers such as Mozilla Firefox.

Is Google ready to browse? Click here to read more.

Google, though, is working on expanding support for other formats. Already, it is considering adding PDFs, Lotus Notes e-mail and other IM services, Mayer said.

More telling, it also expects to create an API so that application developers themselves can create plug-ins for Google Desktop and make their files searchable. Mayer did not know when that would occur.

“It’s important that we get comprehensive,” Mayer said. “We’re still thinking about details of [the API], but there are thousands and tens of thousands of applications, and users want to do a comprehensive search across them.”

Next Page: Other forays into desktop search.

Google’s launch comes amid growing interest in desktop search among major Web search engines and companies. This week, details began leaking about AOL’s intentions to include desktop search technology in its forthcoming AOL Browser.

Microsoft Corp.’s MSN division, which acquired desktop-search startup Lookout Software LCC earlier this year, has said it plans to launch its own desktop search product later this year.

Ask Jeeves Inc. also bought a desktop-search company and is working on a product for this year.

A slew of vendors focus more exclusively on desktop search, such as X1 Technologies Inc., Copernic Technologies Inc. and ISYS Search Software Inc., and many were quick to point out Thursday that their applications index a broader array of files and provide greater functionality to refine results.

To Gary Stein, a senior analyst at Darien, Conn.-based Jupiter Research, Google’s beta release has raised the bar for its search competitors. He was particularly struck by the way Web and desktop results are integrated together and the speed with which the desktop application indexes files.

“They’re calling it a desktop application, but it’s really not,” Stein said “This is a fairly major leap [because] it’s really the integration of local and network data resources all under one interface.”

Mayer said about a dozen Google researcher and engineers, led by senior researcher Steve Lawrence, worked over the past year to create Google Desktop. The application is a 400 KB download and typically can index a user’s hard drive within five to six hours.

It then conducts real-time indexing and includes technology to adjust indexing as a user performs processing-intensive functions to avoid interfering with other work, Mayer said.

One technical hurdle it has yet to overcome is being able to include e-mail messages from Google’s Gmail service in the index.

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Google Desktop Search, however, can return results from other Web-based e-mail services, such as Yahoo Mail and MSN Hotmail, as long as a user has viewed a message through IE, Mayer said. But it cannot search Gmail because the e-mail application is so heavily based on JavaScript.

Google is working to fix the incompatibility in the desktop search product’s next release, Mayer said.

As far as privacy, Google’s desktop application lets users choose which information to include in the index, and they can later delete specific files, e-mails, chats and Web sites from searches, Mayer said.

Google Desktop Search is available as a free download for Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3.

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