The Ongoing Windows Desktop Search Controversy

Windows Desktop Search continues to stir controversy, in several ways.

Desktop Search Bundled with Vista

Back in June Microsoft agreed to make changes to the way it bundles Search with Vista. This was largely due to Google’s claim that:

Microsoft’s hardwiring of its own desktop search product into Windows Vista violates the final judgment in this case.

While I’m clearly no fan of Vista (and Microsoft, for that matter), in this case I found myself on the ‘wrong side’ – i.e. siding with Microsoft (the sky is falling, the sky is falling!).

Here’s the problem: there really should not be a product named Desktop Search . Only desktop Find – and not a product. Being able to retrieve whatever I myself placed on my hard disk should be a fundamental feature of the computer – and that means the Operating System. The fact is, for two decades Microsoft has failed to deliver this capability miserably and that opened up an opportunity for others, be it Google, Yahoo, or my personal favorite, Copernic. Now that Microsoft finally pulled their act together, and Vista has good, built-in search, let’s not complain about the operating system finally doing what it should have been doing in the first place.

In short, Google does not have a case here. A personal side-note: in the meantime I have opportunistically bought a Vista PC (not a pleasant experience), and since this beast has Vista Search built-in, I decided to NOT install Copernic Desktop Search. Not that the Vista version is better: it doesn’t have to be. I hate redundancy, and a competing product would have to be by orders of magnitude better for me to install a duplicate. Of course moving to Web applications made this decision a lot easier: after all what the desktop search capabilities are is becoming more and more irrelevant.

Windows Desktop Search Illegally Bundled on pre-Vista Systems

I found it more than ironic, in fact outrageous that in the very days Microsoft outlines the changes it plans to make to the desktop search feature in Windows Vista to satisfy antitrust concerns, it continues to dump its Desktop Search on XP systems without the users authorization – in fact without even telling users what’s happening.

Users who complain that the newly released Windows Live Installer comes with several options defaulted to “Yes” are missing the big picture: while the defaults may just be an inconvenience (OK, a trap), Windows Live Installer secretly installs Desktop Search on your XP system (Vista already has it). It is not listed anywhere as an option, you are not even warned what happens… you may just notice something funny in your taskbar after the installation:

Yes, that’s Windows Desktop Search, right next to Copernic Desktop Search, which was my choice on the XP system. Further search (Google, of course) reveals that one of the products, Windows Live Photo Gallery relies on Desktop Search. I am not going to argue the merits of this architecture, or Photo Gallery itself, but desktop search clearly isn’t just a component to gallery, it’s a basic piece of my desktop infrastructure. Running two searches is not only redundant, but clearly performance degrading, so at a minimum Microsoft should warn users about the consequences and ask for permission to proceed.

Of course this is not simply a performance issue: this practice is a blatant violation of my rights as the computer’s owner (I don’t recall Microsoft having paid for my PC, so I suppose I still own it). Frankly I am shocked, if this was 1995, I wouldn’t even be surprised, but after all the antitrust issues Microsoft faced, you’d think they learned a lesson… or not.

Additional reading: Microsoft Support, All about Microsoft, BetaNews, Ars Technica.

Update: Surprise, surprise! Microsoft changes Windows files on user PCs without permission, researchers say – reports Computerworld and Hardware 2.0. Also read: Windows Secrets, Today @ PC World, Inquirer, and Microsoft Watch


  1. Regarding the Live Photo Gallery issue you mentioned – that’s still a BETA offering right? Perhaps you should clarify that in your post, as the user experience there is not final.

    Further, Photo Gallery has a technical dependency on the Windows Search property system – which is only redistributed to XP via WDS. It’s definitely not trying to “sneak” anything anywhere, it just needs that in order to function on a pre-Vista system. Countless applications do this with DirectX, XMLLite, SQLLite, MSDE, hotfixes, .NET Framework, C++ runtimes, etc. Though I agree that the user experience here needs work, I wouldn’t call it a “violation” of your computer for an application to install a system update that it depends on.

    Also – if you install Photo Gallery by itself, is the experience better? Perhaps this is just an issue with the combined Live Installer tool?

  2. Okay, so Photo Gallery is dependent on Desktop Search and it’s not blatantly advertised that this is so. Not good but typical. MS taking advantage of the “average user” that really doesn’t check things out thoroughly before downloading. Another real problem here is that Desktop Search is a resource hog when it shouldn’t be. It also is constantly banging on your hard drive so much it never seems to stop being accessed (default settings). This never happens with XP’s normal indexing service activated (which Desktop Search is dependant on so why the difference? Copernic doesn’t do this.).

    Perhaps folks with dual core PC’s with 2 GB of memory don’t experince this problem (running XP) however the majority of PC owners are still (currently) running single core processor’s with 1GB of RAM or less and having Desktop Search installed when it’s not obvious to the user is definately a problem. As usual, MS needs to be more up front with their requirements for new software.

    A long time MS OS/software user.

  3. Kirk – WDS has a very tiny resource footprint, and definitely won’t make your hard drive I/O any greater while you’re using the computer. WDS, by default, only indexes when your system is idle (no mouse + keyboard usage, low CPU usage, and low disk I/O). WDS was designed to run well on much older systems than what you described (tons of enterprises running it on 1ghz 512MB machines, for example). Tests have shown the impact on system performance is roughly the same as Copernic, and less than GDS.

    If you are experiencing any noticeable impact on performance, it is likely you’re encountering a compatibility issue. Otherwise, it’s probably something other than WDS causing the problem.

    Further, the XP built-in Indexing Service *did* cause disk trashing, largely because it didn’t back-off on user activity, though also because it’s a much older version of the indexing technology and not optimized for desktop use.

    WDS does NOT depend on the built-in Indexing Service.

  4. Thanks for the info. Although I know the workings of my OS fairly well perhaps I did something wrong then. I had disabled the indexing service long ago for just that reason and my C: drive was set not to be indexed. It seems I had to enable both before WDS would index anything at all or let me choose what folders I wished to add to the index but maybe just enabling the C: drive to be indexed allowed WDS to work then rather than enabling XP’s indexing service?

    Oh, and I have a fully updated XP PRO with .net 1,2 and 3 installed and not a whole lot of extra software. Ilike to keep things fairly pure.

    Sorry if this comment is a bit off topic but in the above case, when using WDS should the normal XP indexing service be enabled or disabled?

  5. Indexing Service should definitely be disabled. Running both is not a supported configuration and known to cause problems.

    They do both honor the “Not content indexed” flag on drives / folders / files, which is probably why you were unable to choose that drive for indexing.

  6. Brandon,

    That would explain the problem then. I’ll give it another go then. Perhaps I missed it but these parameters didn’t seemed to be listed in the requirements or FAQ’s on the MS website for Desktop Search.

    Thanks for the info. Much appreciated.

    • Yep, I was just curious today as to why Desktop Search was not working on my PC. I have the old indexing service disabled, and I HAD the index flag unslected on many of my folders. As mentioned above, Desktop Search will honor those settings, so you need to allow indexing for it to work. However, you DO NOT need to enable the old Indexing Service. Just confirming what Brandon said above, thanks.

  7. Indexing Service should definitely be disabled. Running both is not a supported configuration and known to cause problems. Graphic Arts Resume is there in which is also nice. Ilkie that post.

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