Apple's future OS, Mac OS X 10.4's Spotlight feature is at the forefront of a new generation of search technologies.

Analysts at IDC believe interest in such technologies, characterized as "integrated desktop search products", will add a "new dimension to the features that end-users demand".

Spotlight is Apple's new technology - which will debut in Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) - that should be capable of finding anything saved on your computer. It will be capable of searching through emails, contacts, calendars, files and folders.

Metadata magic

The solution uses metadata embedded within files that furnishes descriptions of their contents. A note on Apple's Web site says: "Metadata describes the “what, when and who” of every piece of information saved on your Mac: the kind of content, the author, edit history, format, size and many more details. Most documents, including Microsoft Word documents, Photoshop images and emails, already contain rich metadata items."

Spotlight adds such information to its index for later searching. A report on AppleInsider claims Tiger will "ship with several metadata importers for a variety of common file formats as well as all the important file formats used by Apple's applications such as iTunes and the Address Book."

While Apple intends making such features an integral part of its OS, other vendors face a choice, according to IDC: "Software vendors must decide whether desktop search should be a standalone product or a necessary feature."

Information flood propels search tech

"Information finding clearly has become one of the central activities of the online life," said Susan Feldman, research vice president for Content Management and Retrieval Solutions.

"With major software vendors beginning to pay attention to the expanded role that search has assumed, this market is only beginning to see the changes that the next five years will bring."

How safe is your data?

Google is now offering its own desktop search tools, with some reports claiming it intends launching a Mac version of its solution. Microsoft has also stated it plans to "eventually" embed search into its software.

IDC says it believes that email search, in particular, will "position vendors for the next fight to dominate the desktop".

The analysts do express their fear that, left unfettered, computer user's digital privacy may suffer.

"If the desktop product integrates Web search with searching the hard drive and generates revenue based on the searches performed, then IDC questions if it is conceivable for the Web search engine to track the contents of the hard drive," it says.