The History of Search and Why Windows 8.1 Is Better

How do you find something in Windows XP?  You would click Start then Search and choose All files and folders. Perhaps you’ll even refine your search criteria by date modified, file size, or advanced options and then finally click Search.

Undoubtedly, searching for files in Windows XP was an onerous process.  For one, it was hard to zero in on the exact file you wanted.  Sure you would end up in the proximity of your coveted file but even then you had to manually hunt through the results until you found it.  In addition, searching in XP was beleaguered by performance problems because it did a poor job indexing the file system.

With the advent of Windows Vista, Microsoft replaced the antiquated indexer with Windows Search.  It used an incremental search algorithm meaning the operating system searched as you typed.  It even supported natural language searches so you could enter things like “email sent to Greg yesterday” and it would start retrieving relevant results.  Vista also introduced the search box in the upper right corner of Windows Explorer

Then with Windows 7, searching was as easy as clicking Start and typing.  Search pros would use logical operators like NOT to gain true mastery over results.  For example, you could search for “lion NOT Apple” to find pictures of the lions from last years North African safari (but not Apple’s eponymous operating system).  Or you could search for files based on specific properties.  For example, if you open your Pictures Library you might have thousands of pictures that date all the way back to the beginning of the 90s, you could click in the search box and type:

datetaken:a long time ago

You can even narrow the results by augmenting the search phrase with relevant tags.  For example, if you wanted to find really old photos taken from your family vacation to Germany you could type

datetaken:a long time ago tags:germany

Finally, with natural language search you can forget the obscure syntax above and just type your search criteria in a natural way but it’s disabled by default.  Open Windows Explorer, press Alt + t + o (that’s an Oh not a zero) then click the Search Tab, check “Use natural language search” and click “OK” .

Enable Natural Language Search in Windows 7

And then came Windows 8.  The ease of searching became almost effortless.  To find an App just start typing from the Start Screen and watch the list dynamically filter the results with each keystroke.  And after you open the App, Wikipedia for example, and launch the search charm (Windows Key + c is a nice shortcut for that) from within that App the search results only apply to that App.  So typing “cut the rope” from within the Wikipedia App searches Wikipedia, not your computer.

But Windows 8 has it’s own set of problems.  For one, searching for Files and Settings requires more clicks than searching for Apps.  For example, if you open the Start Screen and start typing “june2013 budget” Windows defaults to searching for an App by that name.  It doesn’t know you wanted the file that contained this months budget so — you either have to click the Files category or use funky key shortcuts to make it work.

But with Windows 8.1, changes abound.  Derrick Connell, Corporate VP at Bing, told us that Microsoft teamed up with Bing to bring about global search functionality to Windows 8.1.

In other words, instead of making users click the Files or Settings sections in Windows 8, Windows 8.1 performs a universal search across the entire digital ecosystem.  This includes a file on your computer, in the cloud, in a website, or in an App.

Windows 8.1 effectively aggregates your results reducing the places you have to look.  In other words, Microsoft no longer makes a distinction where the resource actually lives, it just shows you all relevant files regardless of location.  This reduces the number of times you have to search for the same thing and virtually obviates the need for the esoteric refining filters of Windows 7.

In conclusion, Microsoft really wants to make search a more organic, and natural experience for its customers.  If Derrick’s words prove true, Windows 8.1 may very well accomplish this feat.


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Posted in Windows 8.1