Desktop search means a new battle for dominance between a wide field of competitors, and the warfare has begun.

The technology promises users an incredibly fast way to search for data on their drives. Because it's based on metadata, searches are fast, complex and powerful. Apple's technology for this, available next year in Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), is called Spotlight.

Architecturally Unix-based, Spotlight draws on Apple's knowledge of combining online and on-drive searches, as seen in its Sherlock search technology, but massively improved with Spotlight's use of metadata.

Tiger's data prowler is available in the menu bar and can search among emails, contacts, calendars, files and folders. The developer release already supports most major text formats, all major graphic image formats (JPEG, GIF, TIFF, PNG, EXIF and PSD) and multimedia (MP3, AAC and .MOV) files.

With Apple currently the only desktop search toolmaker promising OS X support, it's Microsoft's Windows monoculture that's most challenged.

With clear competition from search engine giants Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves and AOL, Microsoft has been forced to develop such features within its much-delayed Longhorn OS, to keep control of its installed base.

Microsoft enters the fray

Microsoft released its beta desktop search tool, MSN Toolbar Suite on Monday. Based on Internet Explorer, this includes tools for searching users' hard drives, as well as the Internet. It can retrieve calendar items, contacts and email messages; Word, PowerPoint and PDF files. It currently lacks the wide file support offered by Apple.

Despite major security flaws within Internet Explorer, and this morning's revelation of five further flaws afflicting Windows systems, Microsoft's playing rough.

Speaking on Monday MSN vice president Yususf Mehdi said: "People expect Microsoft to do a fantastic job on client code and searching within Windows and Office, and what we have delivered here is what people expected of us: the best way to search your PC."

Battle has begun, and Microsoft's attempting to carve it's own slice of history, though some disagree that Microsoft's driven by the competition. Windows SuperSite writer Paul Thurrott claim's Microsoft's decision to display desktop search features at 2003's Professional Developer's Conference gave others the chance to "copy" the feature.

'Apple has been copying Windows since '96' - Thurrott

Thurrott claims: "Apple's Spotlight feature set is a rough subset of the desktop search features Gates discussed in late 2003, but presented to the user with Apple's standard graphical excellence."

Already, developer pre-releases of the metadata-based Spotlight offer very fast search results, "planned features of Longhorn", apparently.

Thurrott's accusation is that Apple's been "busy copying Windows features since Jobs returned to Apple in 1996".

With Apple's desktop search technology already undergoing widespread beta testing among the company's developer community, the debut of alternativess isn't unexpected.

Rush to acquire technologies

Microsoft must develop its desktop search technologies to match or exceed those not just of Apple, but also of Yahoo, AskJeeves, Google and more. To help it create these technologies, Microsoft acquired desktop search firm Lookout Software earlier this year.

Yahoo will debut a beta version of its new, free Desktop Search tool in the "coming weeks", while Ask Jeeves will test its own from December 15.

In its current implementation, Yahoo's offering focuses on handling email, email attachments, images and audio files; it's capabilities will grow, Yahoo says. It's based on technology acquired from X1 Technologies.

Ask Jeeves will also launch its desktop search beta before Christmas, and hopes to launch a final version next year. It acquired Tukaroo in June.

Lycos released its HotBot Desktop tool earlier this year while AOL is itself working up a tool to fit within a Web browser it's developing now.

Despite well-publicised security vulnerabilities, Microsoft believes it will prevail because its MSN Toolbar integrates with the Windows OS and applications, so users won't need to explore a new application.

Juan Carlos Perez observes: "Although Mehdi repeatedly claimed that this suite of desktop search tools put Microsoft ahead of its competitors, the perception in the industry is that Microsoft could have locked up this market for itself for years, but left the door open to competitors because the hard drive searching tools within Windows have traditionally been subpar."