MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google Inc. on Thursday became the first tech heavyweight to tackle the daunting task of uncluttering computers, introducing a program that quickly scours hard drives for documents, e-mails, instant messages and past Web searches.
With the free desktop program, Google hopes to build upon the popularity of its Internet-leading search engine and become even more indispensable to the millions of people who entrust the Mountain View-based company to find virtually anything online.
The new product, available at desktop.google.com, ups the ante in Google's intensifying battle with software giant Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., which owns the world's second most popular search engine.
Google's desktop invasion heralds a momentous step into a crucial realm — the challenge of managing the infoglut that has accumulated during the past decade as society becomes more tethered to increasingly powerful computers.
"We think of this (program) as the photographic memory of your computer," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. "It's pretty comprehensive. If there's anything you once saw on your computer screen, we think you should be able to find it again quickly."
Although its desktop program can be used exclusively offline to probe hard drives, Google designed it to run in a browser so it will meld with its online search engine. Google.com visitors who have the new program installed on their computer will see a "desktop" tab above the search engine toolbar and all their search results will include a section devoted to the hard drive in addition to the Web.
The desktop search program could be the bridge to a day when Google begins offering consumers the option of storing some files directly on the company's own computer servers, said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch. "It would be the next logical step if this is a success," he said.
As it is, the desktop search program provides Google with a powerful magnet to lure traffic from its chief online search rivals, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo Inc., both of which have been improving their technology.
"Other major search engines will undoubtedly launch similar offerings in the next few months, but they will have to match Google's offering to keep their customers happy or best it to gain new converts," Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li wrote in a report Thursday.
A smattering of lesser-known companies, such as X1 Technologies of Pasadena, already offer desktop search programs. Google is the first company among high-tech's household names to try to make it easier for people to sift through the information mishmash on computer hard drives. It dispenses with the confinement of Microsoft's current model of files and folders.