Windows Vista offers view of integrated desktop search

Beta 1 shows potential with Virtual Folders, metadata features

There’s no reason to postpone planning your enterprise desktop search deployment while waiting for far-off OS-based search technologies. Still, that doesn't mean these developments aren't worth tracking, considering that they have the potential to significantly alter the way we locate information. With that in mind, I examined Microsoft's first Windows Vista beta to see how the desktop search experience may change for end-users.

The most obvious change: Search is planted throughout the Windows Vista interface. You’ll find a search bar at the top of every Windows Explorer display. Begin typing a product name, such as Adobe, in the search block attached to the Start menu and Windows Vista immediately returns results that are only in Adobe application formats. No more shuffling through seemingly endless lists of programs.

Windows Vista retains the physical My Documents folder but adds Virtual Folders, which collect related files spread throughout your hard disk. When I opened documents from the Start menu, Windows Vista allowed me to display files by type, keyword, or author -- for example, Windows Vista automatically collected all my spreadsheets in a virtual Excel folder.

Windows Vista Beta 1, however, recognizes only Outlook e-mail; as a comparison, Apple’s Spotlight -- the embedded search in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger -- indexes e-mail messages, iCal calendars, and contacts. Combined with a wider range of indexed documents, Spotlight holds a slight edge early on, but Windows Vista Beta 2 will also search Internet History and any RSS feeds to which you have subscribed.

To refine accuracy, Windows Vista uses a fundamental concept called Labels. In effect, you attach metadata to files, which allows you to further categorize information. You could, for example, have a set of spreadsheets appear segmented by their various divisions or business units. And for developers, Windows Vista also offers a way to include unique file types in a desktop search.

The main search interface is far more refined compared with previous versions of Windows -- I could easily cascade filters to find the particular file I needed. I also liked Windows Vista’s visual style of previewing documents in a separate pane and providing direct access to the meta information for easy updates and changes. 

It remains to be seen how well this search will work with shared files and enterprise systems, such as SharePoint, databases, and Web servers. Nevertheless, at this early stage, Windows Vista appears headed in the right direction.