Google's desktop liberation tool

Google's new desktop search tool comes with a surprising feature

That 'thunk' we all heard yesterday was the sound of Google throwing down the gauntlet to Microsoft. The announcement of its desktop search tool -- now free to download -- is a key moment in the burgeoning conflict between Web-based applications and traditional desktop operating system software.

The announcement had been widely anticipated. The extraordinary power of Internet search engines has shone a bright white light on Window's own terrible search function -- people just can't understand why it it's easier to find a needle in the Net haystack than that vital email buried in Outlook. Microsoft has postponed attempts to solve this until after Longhorn arrives, many years down the road, as it struggles to secure and consolidate its empire. That's just the sort of opportunity those bright kids at Google can't turn down.

Their solution has elegance and simplicity: a tiny 400K applet that quietly indexes all the emails, documents, and Web searches on your system, and then presents them in the familiar Google interface, neatly integrated with its Web functions.

It also comes with an unexpected bonus -- a thrill. It's reminiscent of the browser wars of the last decade, where users would eagerly await the next release of Netscape's software to see what innovations it contained. As news of Google's new tool spread around the ZDNet UK office, people gathered around computers, excitedly finding new features and trying out new ideas. When was the last time that happened? The buzz is back.

That buzz signifies a sea change. A new generation of companies is building businesses based on fundamentally different assumptions from the people who began the PC software revolution. The people at Google, Amazon, eBay, Salesforce.com, NetSuite and Netflix have one thing in common. They don't see the Net as a threat to their existing business. It's the platform upon which they've built their businesses. It's just how software works.

Google now has its search engine, an email application and desktop search. It has an enormously powerful back-end infrastructure and a lot of consumer trust. It can continue to extend its reach into people's desktop experience.

How about a button on your browser that with one touch backs up all the files, emails, and Web searches on your desktop? How about being able to go to any Web café, log on to Google, and recreate that desktop?

How about a basic online word processing application that allows you to write simple documents and save them online, and that auto-imports all your Word documents, and lets you access them from anywhere in the world?

The old story goes that IBM's salespeople would complain that its technology was so hidden in the data centre that when users were asked what kind of computer they used they'd say NEC -- the name written on their monitors. If users one day log on to a Google desktop, work on documents, send and receive emails, and then log off, they might be as blissfully indifferent to their underlying operating system as IBM users of old.

Who cares about the operating system when the browser does the job? Mainframes, minicomputers, and PC computing have all had their day -- and they're all still here. We're now beginning to see what real Internet computing could look like.