The Fish That Was Ahead of Its Time

This is old news but it still comes as something of a shock to me: You have probably never heard of Enfish but you see its legacy in every desktop search program you’ll come across. That’s because the company helped promote the idea that searching your own files was as useful an activity as searching the Internet. This was back in 1998. It wasn’t entirely novel (there was something called Discovery put out by Altavista), but they did it amazingly well with an application called Tracker Pro that has, in my view, never been improved upon (including by Enfish themselves).

EnfishThe software, as far as I can recall, only worked on Windows 98 but it was powerful, powerful stuff. It indexed your hard drive, network drives and removable drives in the background (OK, there were some performance issues, but nothing you couldn’t overcome) and searches were lightning fast. What I particularly loved about it were the trackers — complex searches you could save and launch from a sidebar. You could give those strings a user friendly name and then share them with other users. You could also, if I remember correctly, tag files to make for more customized, personal searches. All this in a pretty cool interface, which let you view the document, email or whatever within Tracker Pro itself.

Those days have long since been over. Enfish — Enter, Find, Share — developed in different directions. Since late last year, Enfish as a company and product basically doesn’t exist. Instead you find this message on their website:

Dear Enfish Customers, As of November 1, 2005, Enfish Software will no longer sell its own products, but rather license its technology and patents to others.

From now on the technology has been licensed to another company, EasyReach, which I’m hoping to try out. The sad thing to me was that Enfish, despite a really strong first product, seemed to veer off in the wrong direction, instead of focusing on their core strength: powerful indexing flexible search. I found this immensely frustrating, although I also found their team, including still chairman Louise Wannier, very approachable and enthusiastic. They just never quite built on the promise of their first product.

Perhaps it was just a simple case of Enfish being ahead of their time. Now all the big players are throwing out products that pretty much do what Enfish Tracker did eight years ago. But none of them has quite the style that Tracker Pro had, I reckon. Bye-bye, weird hand-shaped fish thing.

The Fish That Was Ahead of Its Time

This is old news but it still comes as something of a shock to me: You have probably never heard of Enfish but you see its legacy in every desktop search program you’ll come across. That’s because the company helped promote the idea that searching your own files was as useful an activity as searching the Internet. This was back in 1998. It wasn’t entirely novel (there was something called Discovery put out by Altavista), but they did it amazingly well with an application called Tracker Pro that has, in my view, never been improved upon (including by Enfish themselves).

The software, as far as I can recall, only worked on Windows 98 but it was powerful, powerful stuff. It indexed your hard drive, network drives and removable drives in the background (OK, there were some performance issues, but nothing you couldn’t overcome) and searches were lightning fast. What I particularly loved about it were the trackers — complex searches you could save and launch from a sidebar. You could give those strings a user friendly name and then share them with other users. You could also, if I remember correctly, tag files to make for more customized, personal searches. All this in a pretty cool interface, which let you view the document, email or whatever within Tracker Pro itself.

Those days have long since been over. Enfish — Enter, Find, Share — developed in different directions. Since late last year, Enfish as a company and product basically doesn’t exist. Instead you find this message on their website:

Dear Enfish Customers, As of November 1, 2005, Enfish Software will no longer sell its own products, but rather license its technology and patents to others.

From now on the technology has been licensed to another company, EasyReach, which I’m hoping to try out. The sad thing to me was that Enfish, despite a really strong first product, seemed to veer off in the wrong direction, instead of focusing on their core strength: powerful indexing flexible search. I found this immensely frustrating, although I also found their team, including still chairman Louise Wannier, very approachable and enthusiastic. They just never quite built on the promise of their first product.

Perhaps it was just a simple case of Enfish being ahead of their time. Now all the big players are throwing out products that pretty much do what Enfish Tracker did eight years ago. But none of them have quite the style that Tracker Pro did, in my view.

The New Search Wars

Search is getting big again. Will it work this time around?

Programs that search your hard drive have been around for a while, but few of them seem to last. There was Magellan, askSam (OK, still around, sort of), Altavista’s Desktop Search, dtSearch (still going strong) and Enfish (still around, barely breathing). That was in the 1990s. But it’s only recently we’ve seen folk get really excited about the space again: There’s X1, Tukaroo (bought out pre-launch by Ask Jeeves), HotBot Search, and now something called blinkx (thanks, Marjolein, for pointing it out.)

Blinkx was officially launched last month as “a free new search tool that thinks and links for you, eliminates the need for keywords or complex search methods, easily finding the information you seek whether it is on the Web, in the news or buried deep within files on your PC.” In other words, pretty much what the other guys do. I haven’t looked too closely at it, but the main idea, as co-founder Kathy Rittweger puts it, is easy search without the logistics: “By eliminating the mechanics of search, such as keywords or sorting through dozens of unqualified results, we drive users more quickly to their goal: finding something, even if they didn’t know it was there!”

That’s good, and I would have said before that that was the way to go, but nowadays I’m not so sure. I think that as disk space grows and people’s hard drives become more complex, different users need different grades of configurability. With most of these new search engines pitching to the ‘lite user’ there’s a danger the more serious document hunter gets left behind. It’s actually a simple calculation: Are you aiming at the casual user who is happy to stumble across a few documents they didn’t know they still had, or are you aiming at the user that needs to find all the documents relevant to their search?

Anyway, it’s good to see folk finally seeing this space for what it is: Horribly underserviced, full of missed opportunities and millions of folk lost on their own hard drives. With Google, Microsoft and others about to enter the fray, here’s hoping that we get something really good out of it.

Another Way To Find Stuff At Home and On The Net

Here’s another one of those tools that should have been around a long, long time ago (in fact one was but it went away: AltaVista Discovery. And don’t get me started on Enfish Tracker). It’s the desktop search engine that indexes your hard drive, the net, all that kind of stuff. Welcome to HotBot Desktop.

HotBot’s Desktop will let you “search local files, email (Outlook & Outlook Express), browser history, and RSS subscriptions. The HotBot Desktop creates a local index to allow you to quickly find local content as you are on or offline.” It also comes with a RSS feed reader and a built-in pop up blocker.

ResourceShelf says it’s by no means perfect, saying there are some bugs that Lycos intend to fix in later versions. It will also only work with Internet Explorer. Anyway, it’s great news that these things are back. I’m building up a list of indexing engines here. Please let me know if I’ve missed any.

Google The Portal?

At what point does Google stop being a search engine and start being what we used to call a Portal? Or has it already happened? Yesterday it announced a new search feature for tracking shipments via Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Type in your tracking number into Google and it will take you directly to the relevant company’s webpage, CNET reports.

The new “Search by Number” feature also brings up information linked to other kinds of numbers, such as patent numbers, equipment identification numbers issued by the Federal Communications Commission, and airplane registration numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (for checking flight delays).

As Gary Price of ResourceShelf points out, offering such specialized information is not new: Ask Jeeves has been working on something called Smart Answers, AltaVista on Shortcuts for even longer. It’s intriguing that what folk a few years back thought would be popular — lots of noisy graphics and titbits of news in an all-flashing, all-dancing big brand portal — is being overtaken by something very, very simple: a quiet, white interface that lets you find what you want, whether it’s a recipe or a patent, fast. I kinda like that.