Reinforcing its intent to expand beyond the Internet searching that made it a household name, Google Inc. today plans to launch software that pulls news stories, photographs, weather updates, stock quotes and other features onto a user’s computer without opening a Web browser.
The new application, Sidebar, highlights Google’s efforts to become a ubiquitous gateway for online information. It also puts Google more squarely into competition with Microsoft Corp., which is trying to integrate similar features into the next version of its Windows operating system, and with Yahoo Inc., the Internet’s most popular portal.
Sidebar is “not an operating system, it’s not a browser,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Kelsey Group. “But it has elements of both in a certain way.”
Sidebar comes bundled with an updated version of Google Desktop, a search tool that finds information on PC hard drives. It sits on the side of the computer screen and frequently queries the Web to update folders displaying news stories and other information. A search box also lets users find files stored on their computers, e-mail they’ve received and Web pages they’ve visited.
“We want them to sit back and let the Web come to them,” said Nikhil Bhatla, product manager for Google Desktop.
Mountain View, Calif.-based Google is the latest Internet company trying to shorten the connection between consumers and the content that interests them. OS X, the latest version of Apple Computer Inc.'s operating system, includes a program called Dashboard composed of little files, known as “widgets,” that automatically update with information.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo recently acquired Pixoria, a start-up whose Konfabulator platform allows developers to create similar widgets.
Yahoo, Apple and Google each encourage developers to create new widgets for consumers to install.
Bhatla, the Google executive, touted Sidebar’s ability to learn from a user’s Web surfing habits. The program will add visited sites to its toolbar and receive automatic updates of postings or photos, so the user doesn’t have to visit the site for fresh content. In displaying news stories, the program over time will favor categories that the user reads most often.
Google’s Sidebar also may contribute to the company’s growing feud with Microsoft. The software lets users bypass parts of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which analysts said was sure to aggravate executives at the Redmond, Wash.-based company.
For example, a computer user who types “word” into Sidebar’s Quick Find tool may find an icon for the Microsoft Word application among the results. The program can be launched directly from the toolbar. Sidebar also displays frequently used files and applications, which means that computer users don’t need to search through Windows folders to find that spreadsheet on which they were working. It also finds Web information without having to open Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.
The worry for Microsoft is that the fewer Windows features its customers use, the less important they will believe the operating system to be.
“Being able to get under the covers of any Microsoft application is not going to be seen as favorable by the Microsoft camp,” said Allen Weiner, an analyst with Gartner Inc.
Sidebar does not include advertisements, but analysts said they could imagine modules that cycle through display ads based on the pages a user has visited.