File photo of an internet surfer viewing the Google home page at a cafe in London
Stephen Hird  /  Reuters file
An Internet surfer views the Google home page at a cafe in London in this August 2004 file photo.
updated 8/22/2005 12:23:51 AM ET 2005-08-22T04:23:51

Google Inc. updated its software for searching PC hard drives and the Internet, giving the free program a new look and adding tools that deliver personalized information based on a user’s Web surfing habits.

Google Desktop 2, available Monday as a public beta test, is the company’s latest volley against Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. as all three race to expand their presence on PC desktops. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.)

The latest Google offering includes several twists. Beyond providing search results, it monitors the user’s behavior and presents relevant information in a resizable and moveable vertical window called the Sidebar.

One module aggregates e-mail messages from a variety of accounts, including Google’s Gmail service or the user’s Internet provider. Others display stock prices, personalized news headlines, weather reports and what’s popular on the Web.

RSS feeds to be added automatically
Another module pulls Really Simple Syndication feeds from Web sites that have been visited and offer that service. Unlike other feed aggregators, the user need not take any action for a feed to be added.

“For the novice, it’s very easy. They don’t even have to know what RSS feeds are,” said Nikhil Bhatla, Google Desktop’s product manager. “They’ll just start seeing them in the Sidebar. Advanced users can go in and customize to their hearts’ delight.”

A photo module displays pictures from the local PC. It also pulls pictures from Web-based galleries that have been visited.

Some features, including personalized news, involve sending details of its users surfing habits back to Google. Bhatla said no personally identifying data is transmitted, and users can opt out.

The program has several tools for finding information buried on local and network drives as well as the Internet. The Sidebar has its own search box and it adds a new toolbar to Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program for quick access to mail messages.

After the initial indexing of all content on a drive — a process that takes place when the PC is not being used, subsequent indexing takes place in real time. That means a file can be found as soon as it’s been saved to the disk.

Instant search
The Sidebar’s search box also finds applications, which can be launched directly from the results list that appears as words are typed in. It’s similar to the Spotlight feature of the latest version of Apple Computer Inc.’s Mac OS X and the built-in search of Microsoft Windows Vista, which is expected to be released next year.

Google, which has come under fire for making private information a bit too easy to find, said it has now disabled the caching of secure Web sites — an option that can be enabled if the user desires.

It also recommends against using the desktop program tool on computers in Internet cafes or in cases where many people share the same operating system account.

Google Desktop 2 also offers the ability to encrypt — or scramble — the index to protect it from being read by unauthorized parties.

The software works on computers running Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Mac OS X is not supported.

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