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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.

Speaking of Siri, this could be an opportunity for Apple to pull from a much wider range of data sources for that feature, too. Too many of Siri's responses end up offering to punt to a Web search or to display a WolframAlpha search result that can't be read aloud. If I ask Siri to define a word, shouldn't it be able to look up that word on an online dictionary and speak the definition out loud?

Google is already making some strides when it comes to aggregating different online data, thanks to its Knowledge Graph feature. (Even if you don't know what Knowledge Graph is, you've probably seen it--it's the thing that displays images, graphs, and even data from Wikipedia right on your search results page.) When I type definition of nonplussed into Google, I don't just get a list of links to online dictionaries--I get the definition of nonplussed at the very top of the page.

That's helpful. And I'd love to see Apple's take on integrating various data sources in a useful way.--Jason Snell

The case against
It's easy to understand Microsoft's thinking here: When you want answers, you want answers, and you don't care about their source. But I've never minded Apple's approach to handling searches on my Mac and iOS devices. For me, searching local data and searching the Web are two distinct activities, in two distinct contexts, and I almost never want to search both my Mac and the Internet at large at the same time.

If I use Spotlight to search for, say, "Weird Al" Yankovic, I want to find all the music, videos, photos, and documents on my Mac that are associated with the parodist. I don't want to find out Al's birthday (which I already know anyway), or his upcoming concert dates. If that's the intel I'm after, I'd rather turn to Google or Bing.

While I appreciate that Spotlight on iOS includes an option to perform my search on Google or Wikipedia, I've probably availed myself of those options twice, ever. Because I think about my searches contextually, I use Spotlight to find apps and contacts and such, and I use Safari when I want to search the Web. (I don't even use Spotlight to search for email or calendar entries; my instinct is always to go to the specific apps and use their search options instead.)

Now, though I don't envy or lust after Microsoft's search implementation in Windows 8.1, I do see two cases in which a similar approach makes sense. I appreciate the ability exhibited by Siri (and Google Now) to search across contexts, but those tools approach it in a very different way. I don't say, "Search my iPhone and the Internet for 'Skipper Dan' by Al Yankovic." Rather, I'd say, "Play Skipper Dan" or "Google Skipper Dan" or "When is Weird Al's birthday?" as appropriate. Siri's ability to know whether I'm talking about playing music or finding a note or searching the Web is excellent, but it's really just time-shifting my own contextual selection a bit: Instead of my needing to first launch the correct app and then give an instruction or perform a search, Siri detects which action makes the most sense given my instruction. I like that for voice search.


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