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Google Desktop Sidebar – Toolbar Meets Browser

Google Desktop Sidebar – Toolbar Meets Browser

I got an opportunity to preview Google’s version 2 of its desktop client (GD2) late last week. It’s very interesting and, in the few days I’ve been testing it out, pretty useful. It offers much improved desktop search, indexing an expanded range of documents. It also offers the ability to sort those files by type and to sort emails. (The other desktop search client I’ve been using is Copernic. Copernic has been much better at finding documents than the first Google desktop client, which I previously used primarily to find email addresses.)

GD2 also offers an MS Outlook toolbar. But the most interesting thing is “Sidebar.” Sidebar is a column of content modules (Google calls them “plug-ins”) that offer a range of tools and features, some of which are personalized.

As the name suggests, it sits beside an open document or browser window (it can be minimized) while the user is working and allows the performance of a range of functions. The tool can be customized and modules can be removed or rearranged, dragged around (as with the modules on the Google Personalized Homepage).

There’s a great deal of functionality in Sidebar and much more to say than I have time for right now. (There are no ads and apparently no intention of serving them—one could imagine a contextual strategy in one of the modules—but Google told me it’s not being monetized.)

Although this is not likely the impetus behind its development, Sidebar can be seen as something of an answer to Yahoo!’s Konfabulator (although it’s different enough that that comparison may not be entirely justified). Konfabulator is a collection of tools put together largely by third parties that allow users to perform a range of tasks—some purely fun, some functional. Those “widgets” sit on the desktop independent of one another, while Sidebar (less aesthetically pleasing) is a kind of “dashboard” that gives users the ability to manage content on the Web and on their local machines in one place.

There’s an API apparently and Google will allow third parties to create plug-ins for the tool, so I would imagine there will be a range of things in the future (iTunes search, currency converters, Google maps, etc.). In fact, one could imagine a huge number of possibilities.

Konfabulator’s widgets don’t reach into the OS (unless there are some there I haven’t seen), whereas Sidebar’s “quick find” search box allows users to launch applications (e.g., Excel, Word, PPT, etc.) without going to the MS Start menu. (This is actually a terrific feature.)

People are out there this morning second-guessing this: What is it; is it a preview of the rumored Google Browser or OS? Putting aside that speculation, this is a tool that functionally sits somewhere in between a toolbar and a browser (with a taste of OS functionality), allowing users to do a bunch of things without having to go to separate places on their machines or on the Web.

The tool gives users a running inventory of email, recent files and Web pages viewed, photos, stocks, weather, personalized news and RSS reader (“Web Clips”) and several other tools. In one way of looking at it, it’s an alternative version of the Google Personalized Homepage and Search History with an RSS reader thrown in.

I asked Google: “Isn’t this a power users tool?” They said no because nothing had to be set up or selected for Sidebar to work; it’s entirely passive. The personalization engine is shared by the desktop client (which gathers information from the user’s machine and browsing behavior). Google calls this “implicit” personalization.

The news and Web Clips modules are the two that offer personalized feeds based on the sites users visit. Some of this information is captured by Google in anonymous form. Most resides on the user’s machine. Privacy advocates will undoubtedly raise the “Should you fear this? Google has too much information” argument in response to Sidebar, etc.

I don’t want to minimize privacy issues, they’re real and very important. However, much of this debate about privacy is a debate about whether Google has become too powerful in the marketplace. If Google had developed the same product in 1999 or 2000, when it was a hip, young company people would likely react to this product as a useful tool and raise the privacy issues as something of an afterthought.

Now that Google is the dominant search engine and making gobs of money people have become suspicious of the company’s motives (“But what are they really doing here?”). From speaking to the product manager, Nikhil Bhatla, I don’t believe that there’s a hidden motivation or agenda behind this product.

It’s a helpful tool that brings together a great deal of useful information in an accessible way. Of course, if users download and adopt it, it will reinforce Google usage. And that will necessarily come at the expense of some of Google’s competitors.

Greg Sterling is managing editor of The Kelsey Group. He also leads The Kelsey Group’s the Interactive Local Media program, focusing on local search. Greg came to The Kelsey Group from TechTV’s “Working the Web,” the first national television show dedicated to e-business and the Internet.

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