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Face-off: Does Spotlight need better Web search?

Jason Snell and Lex Friedman | May 31, 2013
Microsoft announced details of its Windows 8.1 update and since it owns both operating systems and a search engine, it's not surprising that one of the new features in Windows 8.1 is improved Web-search integration.

On Thursday Microsoft announced details of its Windows 8.1 update. Since Microsoft owns both operating systems and a search engine, it's not surprising that one of the new features in Windows 8.1 is improved Web-search integration.

Unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple doesn't have its own search engine. And to date, search-engine integration in OS X and iOS has been pretty limited. If you search in Spotlight on an iOS device or a Mac, you'll be offered the option of searching for the term you typed on your default search engine or in Wikipedia.

Microsoft, on the other hand, will be providing Windows users with an integrated set of search results featuring both the contents of the Windows PC in question as well as from the Internet:

In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the Web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best "answer" for your query. We think this will really change the way you interact with the Web and with Windows making it quicker and easier to get things done.

Should Apple better integrate Internet search sources into Spotlight? There are strong cases both for and against the approach.

The case for
Our devices aren't closed systems anymore. We have files scattered on our hard drives and in the cloud. We've got searchable databases on our devices and out on the Internet. When I want to find something, I might have an inkling about where it resides, but I might not. Shouldn't the goal of Apple's Spotlight interface be to let you find anything, anywhere?

Right now, Spotlight "integrates" data sources such as the dictionary, your default search engine, and Wikipedia--but that integration is limited to a shortcut that will take you to another app to perform a proper search.

But imagine if Spotlight displayed not only documents saved on your Mac or in iCloud that match your search query, but a dictionary definition, some basic information from Wikipedia, and even the top five image and text search results from Google? Wouldn't that be more helpful?

Good user experience should take the burden off of users and put them on our technology. Why should users bear the cognitive burden of deciding where to go when they want to find information about something? The whole point of Spotlight is that it unifies search--inside documents, in email, in the Finder--in one place. It only makes sense to extend that to data sources that aren't on your device.

Just as Apple has integrated data from all sorts of sources into its apps--Yahoo powering the iOS Weather app, WolframAlpha powering a lot of Siri--Apple could make deals with data providers and integrate their responses right into OS X and iOS. I suspect that both Microsoft and Google would be happy to integrate their search engines even more deeply into Apple's products.


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