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Search Me Microsoft Ships Search 4

Microsoft announced this week it is shipping Windows Search 4 for Windows Vista, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2008, an update that adds the capability to search other computers that also have the software installed.

At the same time, Microsoft's Research division is beta testing a group search utility it has named SearchTogether. The idea is to enable multiple users to be able to search collaboratively on the Web.

What is immediately obvious about both announcements is that, despite its failed bid for Yahoo and its continuing paltry third-place showing in U.S. Internet searches, Microsoft continues to push to improve its search capabilities all around.

Among the changes and additions in Windows Search 4, which provides desktop search indexing and retrieval, are tweaks made to Windows Search to improve performance and reliability, according to a posting on Microsoft's Windows Experience Blog.

"Queries are faster, as is indexing -- how much faster depends on your machine and your data … Improved reliability means that system failures won't get in the way of the indexer and all of your data will be scanned and available for searches," Microsoft blogger Brandon LeBlanc, said in the post.

One of the more notable new features is the ability to share indexes with other PCs or servers running Windows Search 4.

"We've … extended remote index discovery, also known as PC-to-PC searches, which allows data to be searched quickly and efficiently across machines running Windows Search 4.0 [which] means that Windows Vista-to-Windows XP or Windows Vista-to-Windows Server 2008 queries are now possible," LeBlanc continued.

For the IT management audience, Microsoft has extended Group Policy to support more detailed control over search features, including settings to index Exchange Server while creating minimal impact on performance, he said. The update also enables users to link to their company's search server.

"This looks like a relatively minor incremental update, although the ability to add a link to corporate search servers is pretty interesting [which] would allow users to search SharePoint/Search Server indexes from the same desktop interface," Matt Rosoff, lead analyst for consumer products and services at Directions on Microsoft, told

Another new feature provides secure indexing for Encrypted File System (EFS) files.

Microsoft first offered a preview release of Windows Search 4 for testing in late March.

Desktop search gets competitive

The company's desktop search technology has been an area of significant controversy, despite the fact that most of the money to be made from search is on Internet searches and not users' local PCs or laptops.

Last year, Google loudly – and successfully -- complained to the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) that Microsoft was deliberately trying to freeze it out of Vista's desktop search capabilities by making it impossible to reset the default to use Google's desktop search engine instead of Microsoft's.

Eventually, under pressure from the DoJ, Microsoft relented and agreed to include the ability to easily reset the default in Vista Service Pack 1, which shipped earlier this spring.

"I don’t think this will have any effect on users’ ability to change the default desktop search provider. That was something Microsoft agreed to do to avoid possible antitrust hearings, and was implemented in Vista SP1," Rosoff said.

Let's all SearchTogether

Meanwhile, Microsoft Research's (MSR) SearchTogether is designed to enable groups to collaborate on Web searches by showing the group’s query history on a screen layout similar to multiple chat windows synched together.

"I’ve experienced a lot of situations where I’ve wanted to be able to work with other people when I was looking for things online," said Meredith Ringel Morris, said in a statement. Ringel Morris is a researcher in the adaptive systems and interaction group at MSR and leader of the project.

Researchers first demonstrated SearchTogether in early March at the annual Microsoft Research TechFest event – a sort of cross between the ultimate science fair and a trade fair to show Microsoft product groups what's going on in the company's labs.

The beta of SearchTogether can be downloaded here. In the meantime, further information regarding Windows Search 4 as well as links to the downloads can be found here.

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