So Where Are the Searches?

June 26th, 2015

In the early days, my first forays into the online world included searching for stuff using Gopher. You could even use it via the command line, so it’s really old. As browsers became more popular and the web became easier to use, Gopher fell into disuse, although it’s still being maintained by some mainstays. According to Wikipedia, there are but 100 Gopher servers left, and they aren’t really being regularly updated.

My early online visits focused on AOL, very much because the service was cheap. But any searching was done within the service until AOL decided we deserved some level of genuine Internet access, so they added FTP, Gopher and even a subpar browser over the years.

I remember what first passed for searching on a Mac in 1998. Apple introduced a little app called Sherlock in Mac OS 8.5. Ahead of using Google, this was one convenient way to do online searches. All right, what became Google began three years earlier, but it took a while before that startup began to grow and ultimately dominate online searching. Indeed much of the search process became browser centric, though I still used Sherlock off and on for a few years.

Nowadays we’ve become lazy in using search tools, so instead of typing the address of a site, if it’s not already bookmarked, you might just “Google” it and click (or tap) on the appropriate link.


As an historical footnote, a third-party developer, Karelia Software, introduced a shareware app called Watson, a sort of Sherlock on steroids, which depended on the plug-in concept for extra modules. Apple, in turn, came up with Sherlock 2 that also supported plug-ins. Watson’s days were numbered, the term “Sherlocked” was invented, which referred to Apple creating one of their own apps to compete with — or sometimes destroy — a third-party product.

Apple wanted to make searching for stuff on your Mac more convenient and faster, and so Spotlight was developed. Introduced at the WWDC in 2004, in debuted in OS 10.4 Tiger, and did its duty by indexing your hard drive, or other drives attached to your Mac. After enduring a few hours of slow performance, searches were almost instantaneous, but again strictly local. You wanted to do online searching, you used your favorite browser, and Google got most of the action.

Sherlock was officially retired in OS 10.5 Leopard, released in 2007.

Spotlight was decent enough, though you had to sometimes rebuild the database, which involves a little trickery in System Preferences or the command line (look it up). It’s efficient enough, but beginning with OS X Yosemite, Apple decided to beef up the feature set and have it search a collection of stuff that even incorporated some level of online searching. Apple, however, is using Bing rather than Google for some of those searchers, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has followed Apple’s ongoing conflicts with the latter.

Safari also integrates to some level with Spotlight, although you’re still getting your traditional web searches, and, yes, you don’t need to use Google if you find their level of targeting ads in your direction too invasive.

In any case, with El Capitan, Spotlight grows more powerful. You can use plain language searching, such as “where did I put those documents on flying squirrels that I wrote last week?” or something similar. From my preliminary encounters with the 10.11 betas, it does seem to work, though I don’t expect perfection. But what it means is that Apple is clearly hoping that you’ll depend more on Spotlight for an integrated search experience that is agnostic about where the data can be found. That way you don’t have to perform separate searches for stuff on your Mac and stuff online.

But I expect most of you don’t use Spotlight all that much, and when you do it’s strictly for local searches on your Mac. You’re probably still accustomed to using your favorite browser, with the default search engine or something else, to find what you want. So the task is split, not so efficient, and I wonder how many Mac users even know Spotlight exists. I know I’ve randomly asked a few people about it, only to get such responses as “Spot-who?”

So it does appear that Apple has to do a little education to get the word out. It’s not that it’s a well-kept secret of course. Spotlight happens to be a tentpole feature in OS X El Capitan and Apple touts not just the plain or natural language searches, but they designed the Spotlight app to function more like other apps, so you can now move and resize the search window. Maybe that’ll help.

Regardless, if you’re not sure about what Spotlight can do on your Mac, try Command-space bar to launch it and go from there. Some people use it strictly to locate and instantly launch apps. But I can see where Apple hopes that widespread adoption of Spotlight will lessen your reliance on Google.

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