This past year has seen an explosion of desktop search tools designed to let the user easily find that lost nugget of information squirreled away on his/her PC somewhere. These search tools are very useful and quickly become the preferred method for getting your hands on that lost email or file. Apple has taken this a step further with the inclusion of Spotlight, their desktop search tool, right into the OS. Time will tell if this utility works better than the third party solutions currently available for Windows users but early testers are singing its praises. Integrating the search engine into the OS seems the proper way to go to me because it can easily be extended to intelligent linking. What do I mean by intelligent linking?
How many times have you sent an email to a colleague that you know you will be referring to in the future, probably more than once? Wouldn’t it be great if the email could be linked at creation time to some other nugget of information on your PC? Better yet, if the search and linking is done at the OS level the system could automatically link this email to the appropriate contact entry in my PIM data. It could generate other links based on words in the email so if I mention "Project X", either in the subject line or message text, it would be properly connected to every item, email, filename or document, that also contain a reference to "Project X". Then imagine carrying that capability a little further and add searchable ink to the mix and now every Windows Journal entry or OneNote item that contains the term "Project X" is also added to the link pool. Then it’s easy at some point in the future to request a list of every item related to Project X on my computer. Better yet, provide an option to view the results visually, like a graphic mind map of sorts. You would then be able to search within the linked items on additional criteria to narrow the returned results if needed. You can easily see how productive this would make you if most of the linking was done automatically. Of course, you still want the ability to add manual links but that’s OK. Those would just get added to the mix when you asked for your search term. This way the results don’t just reflect the actual wording of the search request, they include items that you have specified are related, too.
Here’s a real world example: Kevin Tofel and I collaborate all week preparing for recording the techADDICTION podcast. We will typically email ideas back and forth throughout the week to share ideas, but at the same time we each are making notes in OneNote and collecting information on the web for possible show items. This collaboration works smoothly, each with our own tools to accomplish all of this, and at the end of it out pops that week’s podcast. It is common for me to need to refer to something in a past show which is cumbersome to do now but intelligent linking would make a breeze. I could ask to see all items linked under "techADDICTION" or "show 5", you get the idea. This would return a visual map of all Show 5 links for me to see, and would include everything: emails, OneNote ink and text entries, Onfolio items, web links, etc. EVERYTHING would be there, including the audio files we created. See how wonderful that would be? Since it would be accomplished at the OS level it would cross program boundaries as it must to be truly useful.
A Windows application that attempts to do this is PersonalBrain, a unique way to visually search linked thoughts and files. I have played with this and it is very cool and immediately makes it obvious how useful a visual representation of linked items can be. Unfortunately, the linking must be done manually by the user which quickly kills off a lot of the benefits I’m discussing here. But if it could be done with automatic intelligent linking, well, view their Flash demo and see what is possible with this type of technology.
It seems to me that the technology to do this exists now and wouldn’t be that difficult to integrate into Windows at some point. I hope Microsoft is looking at this but they should be aware that if a partial implementation is done it will turn users off immediately. An OS level search engine like I’m talking about here will not be well received if it doesn’t find all the information you need with the link searches. Apple is taking the right approach to this problem with Spotlight but it would be cool to see MS do it all the way. I would be very interested in seeing this discussed further so please jump in with your thoughts and comments.