By Dan Simmons
BBC Click Online reporter
With the mountains of information we all amass on our PCs, searching for files can be a frustrating task. But all this is about to change, as Dan Simmons discovers.
Until now, personal file searching has been left in a bygone era
When our computers search our hard drives they still do it the hard way - every word of every page of every document.
A much more efficient way is to use indexing, and this is exactly what the experts are doing.
One of the first of a new breed of personalized search tools, for both the internet and your own files, is called Blinkx.
Like the lightning-fast 'net search engines we are used to, it indexes everything it finds on your hard drive using notes or "tags", called "metadata", which the programme uses to search.
The 4MB download from the website automatically indexes your files, something which some users have found can take a while.
Kathy Rittweger, the co-founder of Blinkx, explains: "When you download it, it basically organises all the information on your computer and all of that stuff stays on your computer.
"The process of indexing and organising is a little bit time consuming the first time you do it - it takes a few hours, kind of like a disc defragmenter.
"But afterwards the actual CPU [Central Processing Unit] usage is very light so you won't see any problems with conflicts, or memory or performance degradation."
Once properly installed, Blinkx brings together the web and news groups with your own e-mails and their attachments, and all your files - including multi-media content.
It usefully sorts the results into different types along the tool bar at the top of the screen and down the left-hand side.
A visualisation button offers a flash animation of the search results grouped by concept. The results are delivered almost as quickly as you can type or highlight words on a page.
But Blinkx admits it has not had a chance to index large sections of the World Wide Web yet, so only around half of all web pages are searchable, although that is expanding.
Just ask Jeeves
Other traditional search companies are applying the personal touch as well.
Ask Jeeves, the famous butler, has had a makeover and will be offering a search download for your own files via its US site by the end of the year.
Many other engines are gearing up to help power the personal search bandwagon.
Copernic, for example, allows you to refine your search by entering the dates on which the data you are looking for was sent or created.
But this is more user-led - you have to ask it for information.
And while most of us are used to asking for information, some of the bigger players have other ideas.
Ed Cutrell is in charge of Microsoft's answer to Blinkx. His idea - called Stuff I've Seen - promises to use every application you open to scan your hard disk automatically.
The search window stays open, updating results as you type or simply look at documents. He calls it "implicit query".
"This is when the computer actually looks at what you're working on, does some reasoning about that and then provides you, implicitly, items associated with whatever you're working on", he says.
Microsoft does not have a launch date for Stuff I've Seen, but its research team thinks its natural place would be in the next version of Microsoft Office, due next year.
Search that never dies
Puffin is the reported codename Google is using for its secret desktop search tool.
It is so top secret that Google would not acknowledge to us that it is working on such a project.
But given Google's market position, it is crazy to think it is not planning something - which is likely to be launched under a Beta test banner in the near future.
Apple is also aiming to take a large bite out of the personal search market with its new operating platform Tiger.
It will feature Spotlight, first shown to the world in demo-form just a couple of months ago.
Like Stuff I've Seen, Spotlight can pick out individual words in PDF files.
And a search for pictures can be refined, for example to only those shot in portrait format.
But the clever part might be what they call "smart folders".
Imagine a search that never dies. Once created, it continues to scan your hard drive for updates and puts the results in a folder on your desktop.
Phil Schiller, Apple vice-president, gives an example: "I have a folder called 'files from Ken'. This is a folder that recognises any file that Ken sends me and keeps track of it no matter where it goes on my system.
"So now, if Ken and I are working on a project together, I don't have to re-organise all my files. The smart folder will keep track of them all for me."
Apple has also included a little Artificial Intelligence as well.
Type in the word "yesterday" and not only will it bring back files containing that word but also those created or modified yesterday, as well as those containing yesterday's date.
It is amazing how those little tags or indexes can help you find that piece of information that may be right under your nose.
Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 0745, 2030, Sunday at 0430, 0645 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. It is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0745 and BBC One: Sunday at 0645. Also BBC World.
Other items in this programme: