With Recall, Microsoft is reinventing Google products from 2008


Microsoft’s Copilot+ PC vision revolves around Recall — a photographic memory for your PC that allows you to search all the web pages, documents, and conversations you’ve seen in a single place.

Contemporary as that concept may seem, it’s the same vision Google once offered on Windows PCs — with Google Desktop 20 years ago. The first release of Google Chrome for Windows PCs, launched in 2008, included a similar, now long-forgotten feature.

What’s old is new again. Let’s take a look at some classic Windows desktop tools from Google — which Google hasn’t offered in over a decade, unfortunately — and how incredibly similar they are to Recall.

The similarities aren’t all about searching your PC, either. Amusingly enough, Google Desktop also delivered widgets — another blast-from-the-past feature that Microsoft is getting more excited about these days.

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Microsoft Recall connections: Google Chrome 1.0

Remember Google Chrome 1.0? While Chrome is the most popular web browser on Windows PCs today, it was a quirky tool with an unusual interface when it launched back in 2008. The initial version had one long-forgotten (and long-ago-removed) feature when it launched: it could search your entire web browsing history.

Google even advertised the feature in the official comic the company created to promote Google Chrome. As a Chrome software engineer in the comic explains: “You have full text search over your history. If you found a good site for digital cameras yesterday, you don’t have to bookmark that page. Just type ‘digital camera’ and quickly get back to it.”

Yes, just like Recall, 2008’s Chrome would keep the full text of every web page you visited. Then when you opened the browser’s History page, you could search for words that appeared on web pages, giving you a full-text search of all the pages you’d visited.

As with Recall, the pitch is obvious: If you could quickly find any web page you vaguely remember with a quick search, that could boost productivity — whether you were an office worker, a student, or anyone else.

The original version of Google Chrome remembered all the words on the web pages you visited, too.

Chris Hoffman, IDG

Microsoft’s Recall plans may sound concerning at first, but Recall isn’t the privacy threat it appears to be. Chrome’s initial history-tracking feature had some similar privacy implications, storing a lot more data than a browser normally would. Yes, you could tell Chrome not to save your history or clear the history — but you have that same control over Windows Recall.

Chrome’s full-text-history-search feature apparently didn’t get much use, and it was quietly removed at some point. In a Hacker News comment, a former Google engineer who worked on Chrome explained that most people never found the feature, it used up a lot of disk space, and the search ranking algorithm wasn’t particularly great.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here and many people won’t use Recall to dig through their browsing history, either.

Windows Recall feels like Google Desktop 2.0

But Recall reminds me most of Google Desktop, a once-popular desktop-search-and-widgets tool for Windows PCs that Google launched in 2004 and axed in 2011. (Google even offered Google Desktop for Macs and Linux PCs!)

Google Desktop was designed to bring the company’s search features to everything on your PC — and in your Google account. Here’s what Google Desktop could search:

  • The files on your computer, including words inside Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, and text files;
  • Emails stored in desktop email programs like Outlook, Thunderbird, and Lotus Notes;
  • Emails from Gmail in your Google account;
  • Web pages you previously viewed in your web browser (Google Desktop would log your browsing history and make it searchable, too — just like Windows Recall and Google Chrome 1.0);
  • Chats from Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger;
  • Media files, calendar events, tasks, notes, contacts, and more.

After installing it on your PC, it sat in the background, watching your web browsing, chats, and the files you downloaded and created, building a searchable index of them. It even supported indexing plug-ins, so developers could extend Google Desktop and index whatever else they wanted to.

Back in the 2004-2008 era, that was a lot — maybe everything you did on your computer. I remember a lot of people who loved Google Desktop and treated it as their PC’s “photographic memory” in that era.

Google Desktop could have provided more comprehensive search results for office or school work than the tools we have today. I frequently find myself searching piles of different apps I use for work — was that piece of information in my workplace chat app, email, notes, or a shared document? Today, there’s nothing quite like Google Desktop was back in its day.

Google Desktop offered a web-based interface that put “Desktop” alongside traditional “Web,” “News,” and “Images” searches.

Chris Hoffman, IDG

Google Desktop was very web-centric in its own way. When you searched with it, you saw a Google-style search page in your web browser. But, like Recall, it stored your data on your PC and performed the searches locally.

That being said, Google did include some optional extra features that would raise an eyebrow today. For example, it could “search across computers” if you signed in with your Google account, which involved uploading your search index to Google’s servers. Not even Microsoft’s Recall can do that — Microsoft is taking pains to say your Recall data will always stay on your PC.

Sure, Google Desktop didn’t have plain-language search powered by generative AI tools — and it didn’t take screenshots of your computer every five seconds to extract information from them. But it did everything it could back in those days.

Google sent Google Desktop to the Google Graveyard as part of a “spring clean,” explaining that there was a big shift toward cloud computing — and that modern operating systems offered better built-in search features.

That’s true, but it also meant that the dream of searching everything in one place — every web page you viewed, email you worked with it, chat message you received, and document you had — was gone. Search became scattered across various different applications and tools — until now, when Microsoft is trying to bring it back together with Recall.

Google Desktop’s widget-style “gadgets”

Interestingly enough, the parallels with the Microsoft of 2024 and the Google of 2008 don’t end there. Google Desktop also had a whole desktop widget platform, which Google called “gadgets.” You could see information like the weather, news, and photos right on your desktop without opening another window.

Google went even further, integrating its desktop gadgets with its iGoogle home page; if you had Google Desktop installed, gadgets on iGoogle could access information from gadgets in Google Desktop.

Google also offered web-based “gadgets” in its iGoogle home page.

Chris Hoffman, IDG

Microsoft, which spent years moving away from widgets and pursuing Live Tiles, is now reinventing widgets on Windows — whether that’s with the Widgets menu on Windows 11 or with a currently-in-testing plan to put those Widgets smack dab in the Start menu.

When I look at Windows 11 and see the big search plans and the eagerness to place windows everywhere, I can’t stop thinking about Google Desktop and how far ahead of its time it was.

A forgotten era of Google-powered Windows software

The Google of that era feels like a different company than the Google of today. Google was a company with a mission of organizing all the world’s information, so why wouldn’t it offer superpowered desktop search tools that helped you dig through all the web pages you ever viewed, chats you had, emails you received, and Office documents you worked with?

Google really delivered a lot of excellent Windows software back then. Case in point: the Google Toolbar released in 2000. When you installed that free toolbar in Internet Explorer, it added a pop-up blocker to your web browser. (Yes, there was a time when Internet Explorer didn’t even have a pop-up blocker! What a mess that was.)

But Google Desktop is long gone, and Google is more focused on web-based tools and mobile apps than anything else. After so long without a big unified desktop search tool, I’m excited to put Recall through its paces. I’m hopeful it will speed up my work — just as Google Desktop did back in its day.

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