Microsoft released a preview of Windows Search 4 today, an update to the Windows Desktop Search program that is built into Windows Vista and can be installed separately on Windows XP. The search programs index everything on your computer that matters – the full text of your documents, the tags on your photos and music files, every word of every item in Outlook – and do lightning fast searches for anything, as fast as you can type in the letters of a search term. I’ve written frequently about Windows Desktop Search – here are some posts with more information and links.

This is the first public release of Windows Search 4. Microsoft’s Knowledge Base article has detailed information and download links with no indication that this is anything other than a finished product. (04/01: The KB article was quickly edited to describe this as a preview.) The Vista team blog, on the other hand, describes this as a “preview,” suggesting that we should all watch for a while until it is polished into a finished product. I’m going to begin testing right away.

Let’s assume it does what they claim. As always, we may come back to that later.

It is designed to upgrade prior versions automatically. Theoretically Windows Search 4 can be installed freely on Windows XP or Vista computers and it will deal appropriately with earlier versions of WDS. Windows Search 4 includes the ability to search network shares, which previously required a confusing addin.

Most of the claims for Windows Search 4 are unexciting. They fixed bugs, improved performance, and it will handle things gracefully if there are errors in the index. Swell.

But there is one new feature that has the potential to make my small business clients laugh and sing. If this works as promised, it is a huge leap forward in the technology available to small businesses.

Currently Windows Desktop Search 3.01 is installed on my clients’ PCs. Each copy of WDS 3.01 is installed and configured separately. When documents are stored on a server or in a central location on one of the PCs, each workstation has to be set up to search that network share and each workstation maintains its own index of each network share. That has an impact on network traffic and it introduces individual points of failure – each computer might have its index become corrupted or have missing files or a host of other problems.

Now imagine that Windows Search 4 is running on all your business desktop computers – and it’s running on your Small Business Server, which is now one of the supported platforms. That means the server has an index of all of your business documents and PDFs and images.

Remote Index Discovery allows the search indexes to talk to each other. When you search a network computer, the network computer consults its own index and hands over the search results. That’s quicker and requires less resources, it improves consistency in searching for everyone in the office, and it significantly reduces the chance of error.

I’ll be experimenting and watching reports closely. I may want to roll this out in some of my clients’ offices soon.

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