NEW YORK -- Google Inc.'s fortunes have risen on its ability to entice digital consumers, gauging their desires based on their online travels.
Its latest products -- Google Desktop and Google Talk -- continue in that vein by attempting, with minimal user input required, to satisfy Internet user cravings for information and personal contact.
Desktop wants to become our conduit for information, from e-mail to Web pages to news and weather -- even reminder notes we write to ourselves. Talk is Google's first foray into Internet messaging and telephony.
Both programs are in a "beta" test phase, the software industry's way of telling the public that better things are coming but here's our first shot, flaws and all. Both are a good start in making computing conform to our needs.
And both are free, though only available for Windows 2000 or XP computers.
Google, the first of the major search engines to release a product that searches inside computer files, continues to distinguish itself as a cut above rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. with version 2 of Desktop (renamed from Desktop Search).
Most impressive in Desktop is its Sidebar feature, a 2-inch-wide tower of info-rich "panels" that sits on the side of your screen.
The e-mail panel, atop the tower, alerts you to messages as they come in and lets you read them right there on the screen. The tool supports any accounts you can configure with Outlook, Thunderbird or Netscape Mail as well as Google's own Web-based e-mail service, Gmail.
Sidebar also has a scratch pad -- think digital Post-it Notes -- to jot down reminders and other important tidbits. Another panel is devoted to your stock portfolio, yet another to the weather. Others feature news updates and Web journal entries.
You can rearrange or delete panels and download new ones, including a "to do list" manager.
You might be asking, "So what?"
Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and America Online Inc. all have personalized pages that display news, stocks, sports and weather. But they require you to visit a Web site and spend time customizing them.
Google's Sidebar, by contrast, is browser-free and did much of the customizing for me.
When I first ran it, Sidebar already knew that I live in New York by taking a peek at my recent visits to such sites as AccuWeather. It also incorporated my e-mail accounts once I opened Outlook, and it took just a few more clicks to add Gmail.
Best of all, the "Web Clips" panel automatically incorporates feeds using Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a technology that notifies users of new entries on their favorite news sites and blogs.
Other RSS tools I've used, including FeedDemon and NewsGator, require you to choose sites for feed notification. Sidebar figures all that out by watching what sites you visit, though advanced users can add or remove individual feeds manually.
This is the start of the kind of automation that will truly bring RSS to the masses. (A November study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found RSS usage by only 5 percent of Internet users.)
I only wish the sidebar allowed me to do more, such as sort feeds by subject so I could keep items on technology or movies separate from current events, for instance. That's standard with most RSS tools I've used.
Sidebar quickly made itself popular with me, however.
I've been reading plenty about Hurricane Katrina lately so it added those feeds to my list. I'm not sure yet whether I'll face information overload, though Google says individual feeds will get dropped when I pay less attention to them.
I also wish the windows that slide out from the Sidebar would close by themselves once I move my cursor elsewhere or switch to a different application. They tend to block whatever else I'm doing.
The new version of Desktop, meanwhile, addresses many of my past concerns about privacy as it scours my hard drive, monitors my Web travels and keeps track of my e-mailing and instant-messaging.
But a key concern remains: Items deleted from your computer stay in the index. So you must remember to remove both copies. Yahoo and MSN do that automatically. It's not that Google is getting the information, but I fear that someone getting unauthorized access to my computer could easily pull data I'd wanted gone for a reason.
For now, the benefits of Sidebar outweigh that concern in my mind. I'll be keeping Desktop on my computer.
I am, on the other hand, less thrilled about Google Talk, a bare-bones instant-messaging program that permits Internet-based phone conversations for anyone with a Gmail account.
True, with just a click, it automatically populates your list of buddies based on the people you frequently communicate with via Gmail. And it integrates text and voice chats better than other IM programs I've used, all without annoying pop-up clutter and ads common elsewhere. Phone calls came through loud and clear once a colleague and I properly set up our microphones.
But the most popular IM systems -- AOL, Yahoo and MSN -- remain closed networks and are incompatible with Talk.
And Internet-based calls are limited to other Talk users -- not to regular phone numbers.
With relatively few people on Talk for now, it gets quite lonely.
On the Net:
Google Desktop: http://desktop.google.com
Google Talk: http://talk.google.com
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