Where's My Stuff?

Jon Udell says, referring to OS X's Spotlight that "desktop search feels like an anachronism in 2005." I have to disagree--at least a little.

Now, I understand exactly where Jon's coming from. In San Jose a month ago, we discussed his approach to workstations at some length over dinner one night. Jon's trying to move to a world where as little of his data as possible lives on specific machine and his tools are platform agnostic. Hence he uses Firefox to access Gmail, del.icio.us, and other network based tools. Jon's not alone: the next day I was talking to Steve Gillmor and he's trying to do the same thing.

This is a worthy experiment and one I'll continue to follow with some interest, but I've taken a different path, at least for now. My Powerbook is my only workstation. I take it with me everywhere. I don't even use a PDA since my laptop is almost always within reach. My development environment is on my laptop as are all of my files, email, etc. Sure, I use things like del.icio.us and other network tools, including my blogging software and my wiki, but I'm not going out of my way to avoid my Powerbook. Right now, I don't think either of these approaches is wrong--they're just different. I will concede, however, that Jon and Steve's approach is more forward looking and indicative of behaviors we'll all move to in varying degrees over the next few years.

Given my approach, Spotlight has changed the way I use my computer in a more fundamental way than anything I can remember since I first started using X Windows 18 years ago. I simply no longer worry about navigating directories. No matter what I want, I type it into the Spotlight search window and it's found. Period.

I haven't quite gotten to the point where I don't even use folders, but it's possible. You all know at least one person who still doesn't understand folders and keeps every document they create on the desktop, right? Spotlight will save them; at least if they use OS X.

Spotlight is more tightly integrated into the OS than something like Google's desktop search since the OS ensures that every data operation automatically updates the index. To see this in action, type a word into the Spotlight search box and then click on the "Show All" line. With that window open, do some things like saving a new Word file containing the word, sending an email with the word in it, or almost anything else. They'll immediately show up in the Spotlight window. Delete them and they're gone from the window just as fast. No need to wait for the next indexing operation.

OS X contains hooks that applications can use to interface with Spotlight and we've yet to see what things developers will come up with to make use of its features.

Tiger contains some other new stuff, but I could do without all of it. I can't imagine, however, going back to a computer without Spotlight. It would feel just like going back to DOS did after my first taste of X Windows on Unix--unbelievable crude.

Now, Spotlight's not perfect. In fact, Jon hits its biggest limitation smack on the head: it doesn't know anything about network-based data. Even with my approach to workstations, I still have a lot of data on the net in the form of my blog, Gmail, del.icio.us bookmarks, photos, and so on that I wish Spotlight would show me. I'm not interested in searching my desktop or the net. I want to be able to search my data--wherever it is. We're not there yet.