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Search and ye shall find (maybe): Apple's Spotlight needs an overhaul

Kirk McElhearn | April 1, 2013
When I backed up my home folder recently, my backup software showed that it contained 191,644 files. With a haystack that large, it can be difficult to find specific files: As an example, the other day I wanted to find an article I wrote about Spotlight, back when Apple last made a significant update to the feature.

The golden goal

It's time for Apple to provide a simpler, better way to find files. Instead of letting Spotlight languish, the company should rebuild the feature, harnessing more of the search technologies that we've come to expect over the eight years since it debuted.

Users have gotten savvier about search in the past decade--who doesn't use Google to find things on the Web these days? But even though search may be Google's special talent, that doesn't mean that Apple shouldn't attempt to take a page from Mountain View's playbook. As any Google user knows, generating hundreds of hits doesn't do you much good when you're searching for one particular thing. All you care about is finding the right results. For Apple, focusing on delivering those results should be the most important part of the equation.

Simpler is better, too: Instead of requiring users to type kind:word when searching for a Word document, let them click entries in a list to select different document types, as they could in Tiger's Spotlight window. Most users probably aren't even aware of this arcane search syntax; though OS X's help does identify some of the keywords, it omits many others (for example, kind:word and kind:excel are not there).

Third-party software already provides capabilities of these types. In fact, I eventually found my old Spotlight article by using Houdah Software's $15 Tembo. Based on the older Spotlight window, Tembo offers users the ability to sort by file type, location, date, and more. Tembo is a good utility, certainly, but its functionality, which was present in Spotlight's early days, should be an integral part of OS X.

Apple could even go further and offer a natural-language search feature. In this scenario, I'd type something like where's my last Macworld article about Spotlight?, and Spotlight would know enough not to show me less relevant hits like sitemap.xml in my search results.

Perhaps a feature of this sort will surface in OS X 10.9.Rumor has it that we might see the addition of Apple's Siri virtual assistant feature. I'd like to tell my Mac, "Find the file with my iTunes 11 review," and have a Finder window open showing that file. In this day and age, having to use obscure keyword syntax to initiate a search should be a thing of the past.


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