A brief history of Windows Search 4.0 beta and why Vista search still sucks

Last week saw the public beta launch of Windows Search 4.0. While it brought several welcome improvements for consumers to the standard Windows Vista search, namely speed and better searching of remote computers, I can’t help get the feeling that the Vista search still (for want of a better word) sucks.

For starters lets take a look at what Microsoft started off at the drawing board with. Bear with me as the branding mess on this is unrivaled.

In May 2006 an application known simply as Windows Live Search (internally OneView & Casino) was demoed at the Microsoft CEO Summit, during Bill Gates’ keynote no less.  Brandon Paddock wrote a great description of what this team were trying to achieve:

“The focus of this demonstration was on searching in the Enterprise and how Microsoft is developing cutting-edge solutions to problems that information workers face every day.

But we aren’t only providing a solution for Enterprises!  We’re building the next-generation search application for Windows, and we want to take search to the next level for all kinds of users”.”

This desktop application combined the Windows Desktop Search technology we have now as Windows Search 4.0, a Windows Live UI, and searching across both local machines, intranets and the internet. This federation of search results is something we heard this week “was a research project” but is still something we hope to see Microsoft releasing for consumers in the future (it’ll inevitably come for enterprises).

In July 2006 Steve Ballmer gave a demo of Windows Live Search Center, as it was then named and shortly after that it was announced that the project would fall under the Windows umbrella.

If you compare the designs above to what we now have in Windows Vista, you’ll see that most of the basic features made it across. Preview pane, ability to filter results by file type (All/Email/Document… etc)

While it was a great decision to combine the Windows Search 4.0 technology with native OS search as we now have, the actually usability of it has actually worsened in Vista.

Over the weekend DownloadSquad did a great comparison of Windows Search 4.0 (on XP) to Google Desktop Search. As a Vista RTM user for now 18 months, I’d forgotten exactly how WDS was laid out compared to Vista search, and so it gave me some food for thought.

XP users have categories to refine their search results, by images, documents or music. In contrast, Vista users just get a jumbled mess. Yes it’s easy to filter search results by hitting the All/Email/Document.. buttons, but this adds in another hoop for users to jump through.

While it is much easier to launch searches in Vista (each Explorer window has a search bar) what use is that when results are indistinguishable. Windows Vista saw changes to the folder navigation UI in order to encourage users to adopt search, but instead we just have two poor solutions.

Then there is the fact that searching local machines on the same small home network is still unachievable for the average consumer, nothing has improved since XP. If I’ve added a mapped drive or network share, I don’t want to have to navigate there in Explorer in order to search for my file, I may as well just carry on browsing directly there myself. This is where the federation of search results I talked about above comes in, and makes me wonder why Microsoft haven’t yet shipped this in a basic form for consumers.

Obviously Enterprise is a much larger scale, so it’s understandable that there are many more requirements needed to make it operate effectively. However this technology was demoed almost two years ago, so what’s the holdup? Home networks are commonplace and Windows Home Server is only going to increase the prevalence of these.

Sure search on the OS has come a long way, but compared to WDS on XP, Vista has barely made any progress.