Walt Mossberg

Google Wants to Be Your Best Friend On Your Computer

For most Internet users, Google is synonymous with online search. Millions of people begin every Web session at Google’s famous, plain home page.

But that’s not good enough for the bright young upstarts who run Google. They want Google to be your constant companion even if searching or browsing the Web is the furthest thing from your mind. They are working hard to make Google software a fixture on computer desktops.

That is the aim of two new, free products the search giant released this week. One is an instant-messaging program called Google Talk, intended to be your primary means of real-time digital communication. The other is an information-management utility called Google Desktop 2, designed to become a permanent part of your desktop, grabbing space from Microsoft’s Windows desktop.

I’ve been testing pre-release versions of both new products, which only work on Windows PCs, and have found that both work well, with a couple of exceptions. More important, both products, especially Google Desktop, have great potential for expansion and are meant to become indispensable.

Google Talk and Google Desktop, of course, aren’t the first examples of what might be called the company’s “Google everywhere” strategy. Before this week, Google released its Gmail email service, purchased the Picasa photo-organizing software and launched a service designed to accelerate Web surfing.

But the two newest releases are bold, major steps for Google, and significantly broaden the company’s already fierce competition with Microsoft, Yahoo and America Online.

Google Talk is a pretty simple and straightforward instant-messaging program. It’s only available for Gmail account holders. It can automatically build a list of contacts, which Google calls “Friends,” from your Gmail contacts directory. You can add others. You can also compose and send an email to any of these Friends via your Gmail account from within Google Talk.

Like other instant-messaging programs, Google Talk also allows you to conduct an audio conversation with people on your Friends list, provided you have computers with a microphone.

I tested this audio feature with my assistant, Katie Boehret, and we agreed the audio quality was excellent, even though I was sitting under a noisy ceiling fan and she was outdoors on a patio. But Google Talk lacks many of the features of its competitors, including video, file transfers and the ability to organize your contact list into groups. Google is promising to add features over time and to work on making it interact with other instant-messaging services.

Google Desktop 2 is more interesting and has more potential. It’s officially the second iteration of Google’s Desktop Search program, which indexes and searches files on your hard disk. But it’s really a much different and more extensive product.

Google Desktop places a “sidebar” on the edge of your screen, and fills this sidebar with modules that fetch relevant information from the Web or from your own computer. It also allows you to enter information, such as short notes. It stands alone, separate from your Web browser and email program.

Out of the box, Google Desktop comes with modules that display news headlines; the subjects and senders of newly arrived emails; short summaries of new entries from favorite Web sites, called “Web clips”; weather information; photos from your PC or the Web; stock prices; and “quick views” of your frequently visited Web pages. There is also a box for typing in desktop searches. You can also add third-party modules. I installed an add-on that controls Apple’s iTunes music program and another that creates a to-do list, right from the sidebar.

Although it first covers only a narrow slice of screen real estate, you can expand the sidebar to cover about half of your screen. It remains in place no matter what you are doing. This means you could eventually use Google Desktop as your main go-to place for navigating all your key information and your files. If you click on an entry in a module, say a Web clip or a news headline, a little window opens with more details. You can even launch applications by typing their name into the search box.

You can plant the sidebar on either side of the screen, make it hide itself to gain more screen room, or even turn it off and just view the desktop search box by itself.

There are a couple of drawbacks in this first version. Some modules gather information automatically by observing what you do on the Web and trying to guess what you’d like to see in the sidebar. A lot of the guesses were off base.

Also, on one of the three computers I used to test Google Desktop, it kept the hard disk spinning for hours. This can happen when the desktop search function first indexes your hard disk, but this machine had already been indexed by the earlier Google search product, and was supposed to need only six minutes to update.

Still, Google Desktop and Google Talk are useful programs that have great potential. They just might make Google your new best friend, and that would be bad news for Microsoft.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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