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By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Computer users have a tendency to hoard, reluctant to cull the myriad files on their machines. But how best to sort through this clutter? New search tools make the job much easier.
Hard drives cater to hoarders
When it comes to a home computer, many users are much like those obsessive hoarders who cannot bear to throw anything away and gradually fill their houses with a lifetime's worth of stuff.
This is hardly surprising, given that this is a machine used to store digital photos, videos and music files, to book holidays, to shop online, to write e-mails and letters, to create websites and to play games.
The ever-growing size of the hard drives shipped as standard on even the lowliest computer encourages this never-delete, keep-it-at-all-costs, you-never-know-when-you-might-need-it, culture.
And therein lies a problem, as rare is the user who is naturally neat when it comes to filing the digital clutter generated.
The fact that Windows tries to file things its way, rather than the way the user chooses, only adds to the problem of knowing what's stored, where and what the file is called.
Born to be filed
Now the industry has caught on to this need, and set about finding better ways to sort through the clutter. As well as big players such as Google and Microsoft, myriad others are developing PC search tools.
Google's yet-to-be-released system - codenamed Puffin - is expected to be an add-on to the deskbar that the search company introduced last year.
A memory to store and treasure
It's likely to search and index everything on a computer to make it easier to find, but Google will not confirm details yet - a spokeswoman says the company doesn't talk about its forthcoming products.
Puffin is seen as a pre-emptive strike against the PC search tool that Microsoft is expected to introduce soon as part of MSN. Beyond this, the software giant is also planning a more far-reaching system with Longhorn, the next version of Windows.
At present, Windows uses a different search tool for each program. These will be amalgamated in Longhorn, which will allow users to add a description of each file created to aid in the search.
Samuel Druker, one of the Microsoft developers working on the system, says these will make it possible to do very complicated searches. A user will be able to search their Powerpoint slides, for instance, for those used in the past two weeks in meetings with Bob from accounts.
Among the search tools already available are offerings from Enfish, Lookout, X1, dtSearch and Blinkx [see Internet links on right].
The free to download system from Blinkx launched in late May and is still in a trial version. It indexes e-mail messages, attachments, Word documents and other files.
Kathy Rittweger, the co-founder of Blinkx, says it uses context-based algorithms to try to understand what documents are about.
"It's very sensitive to what you are telling it, and tries to get at what ideas are you interested in behind your search term," she says.
Once installed, Blinkx watches what's being worked on and suggests webpages and news stories that might be of interest. It can also be used to search via its own window. Clicking on a search term takes users to a visual representation of the relationships between results.
Ms Rittweger says the system has been created to help people get to grips with the mountain of information typically collected on a PC.
"It's all about unlocking hidden knowledge, which sounds a little forced but when you have been using it you start coming across things you forgot you had."