Two months after Google opened up a whole new market with its desktop search tool, Microsoft has joined the party with the release of its own beta test version.

The new MSN Toolbar Suite is free and available for download now at http://beta.toolbar.msn.com. The Toolbar is an updated version of its existing search tool but includes the option to search users' own hard drives. It can index and retrieve calendar items, contacts and e-mails, as well as pdfs, and Microsoft Word and PowerPoint files.

"People expect Microsoft to do a fantastic job on client code and searching within Windows and Office, and what we have delivered here is what people expected of us: the best way to search your PC," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president for the MSN Information Services and Merchant Platform division at Microsoft.

Microsoft's rivals Google, Yahoo, AOL and Ask Jeeves are all highly interested in ruling the desktop search market. Google delivered a beta version of its desktop search tool in October, while Yahoo announced last week it plans to launch its own tool next year. Ask Jeeves will offer details of its desktop search tool later this week, while AOL will provide desktop searching within a Web browser it is developing.

Microsoft believes it will be able to win over users through the tight integration it says the MSN Toolbar Suite has with the Windows environment and applications, which will let users conduct desktop searches within the applications they are familiar with, as opposed to having to operate within an external application, Mehdi said.

The tool, at this stage at least, does have some limitations. It doesn't index e-mail messages stored in IBM's Lotus Notes e-mail and collaboration system, Mehdi acknowledged. The suite indexes some picture files, such as GIFs and Bitmaps, but it wasn't immediately clear to what extent it indexes other types of multi-media files.

The suite, which works with either Windows XP or Windows 2000 SP4 and above, and indexes about 217 different types of files, said Adam Sohn, a Microsoft spokesman, although a full list of those files is not yet available.

The tool indexes some of files via their title, but can search content in Word and - unlike Google - pdf files. The browser toolbar for Web searches only works with Internet Explorer, however. While Mehdi repeatedly claimed its desktop search tools put Microsoft ahead of competitors, the bigger irony is that Windows sub-standard search tools are what have allowed the market to develop in the first place.

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner has tried both the Google and Microsoft desktop search tools, and concluded that they are both fairly intuitive and easy to use. With Yahoo and Ask Jeeves also coming out with their own entries, and with a variety of existing desktop search tools already available from smaller vendors, this is an area that is quickly becoming commoditised, something that plays to Microsoft's advantage, he said.

"The differentiation will not necessarily be their quality, but the vendors' ability to get them in front of people, and that's where Microsoft excels," Weiner said. Microsoft can be expected to give users the option of downloading the desktop search suite as often as possible, such as whenever users download upgrades to Explorer or the Windows Media Player, and by promoting it through MSN online services, such as the Hotmail and MSN Messenger, Weiner said.

In this way, the desktop search fight may end up resembling the browser wars of several years ago, which Microsoft won even when it started late and was getting roudly beaten at the beginning by Netscape, Weiner said. Compounding the matter for Microsoft competitors is that, based on Gartner research, users say they are unlikely to have more than one desktop search tool on their PCs.