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Introducing Google Desktop for Mac

by Giles Turnbull

Google Desktop for Mac has been some time coming, a long way behind its sister app for Windows. But now it's arrived, so let's take a good look around the OS X version and see what's inside.

Installing Google Desktop for Mac

Google Desktop (or GDesktop, as we'll call it from now on), is not installed like any application you've installed before. (Figure 1 shows the installer at work.) The first thing to arrive is Google Updater, a completely separate app that acts as a manager for GDesktop and any other Google-provided software you may have installed (such as Google Earth).

The installer at work

Figure 1. The installer at work

Updater does what you'd expect. It downloads the GDesktop code, unpacks it, and installs a bunch of files in various places around the system (full details of what goes where are uncovered and explained by John Gruber).

The end result is a Google in your Applications folder, along with another Google in /Library/Application Support/Google. There's also a prefpane added to /Library/PreferencePanes/, which is where you manage GDesktop's behaviors.

Removing GDesktop from your system is not as simple as dragging the application to the Trash. Instead, you will first have to open Google Updater and use the Uninstall button there. None of this is typical for a Mac application, but none of it is terribly hard to remember either.

Once installed, GDesktop gets straight to work indexing your hard disk. This can take a long time. My moderately full 80GB hard disk took nearly two hours, but some people with huge disks and millions more files have reported significantly longer times (see TidBITS' initial report for examples). It's advisable to start this process and go do something else--like sleep overnight--while it works.

This process creates indexes. Each user account gets one at ~/Library/Application Support/Google/Google Desktop/Index. There's also a system-wide index at /Library/Google/Google Desktop/Index. Inside each of these Index folders is another folder with a name comprised of a random string. This folder is owned by root. More on this in a moment.

When it is complete, GDesktop shows a friendly welcome message to introduce new users to the basics, as shown in Figure 2.

First look at Google Desktop

Figure 2. First look at Google Desktop

One of the more controversial aspects of the installation is the use of an Input Manager, made more so because users are not warned in advance of its use. Many readers will already be familiar with the arguments against the unexpected or silent use of Input Managers, which we shall not repeat here. Suffice it to say, they remain controversial. And their future is by no means clear--rumors suggesting that use of Input Managers will be banned, or restricted, in Leopard have been circulating for some time now.

GDesktop grants itself high-level permissions and installs files for all users of the computer whether they want it to or not.

Why did Google build it this way? I think this question is answered by this quote from Mike Pinkerton's announcement on the Official Google Mac Blog:

The next goal was to make Google Desktop as easy to use as a web search. In your web browser, Google Desktop looks and behaves like our web search, seamlessly blending the two experiences.

GDesktop's designed behavior is to merge your web search experience with your desktop search experience. It makes use of some high-level hacks to get this feature to work. There have been a lot of complaints about GDesktop's installation procedure (not just from John Gruber), but most of them are about the manner of the installation, rather than what gets installed. In other words, if Google had provided a warning in advance, there might have been less controversy.

When everything is indexed and you start using GDesktop, you'll find that more stuff is going on in the background than you might have expected, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Google Desktop's processes in Activity Monitor

Figure 3. Google Desktop's processes in Activity Monitor

That's five different processes (two of them called GoogleDesktopAgent) running at once.

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