New, faster, smarter Search tools are on their way, but many will pop-up with a sting in their tail.

When Google was started by college buddies Larry Page and Sergey Brin one potential investor – a Web portal CEO – told them: “Our users don’t really care about search.”

Now, the Web search/services provider is poised to go public and achieve a $36.3 billion market capitalization. Users really did care about search. Indeed, searching is turning out to be the killer app of the Web, just as email was for the Internet.

The robot software that continually crawls the Web to refresh and expand Google’s index of online documents is called Googlebot. Googlebot is great at trawling through the billions of Web pages and images, Usenet messages, and PDFs, but it can’t get into your computer and help you find stuff quickly.

Enter the Google Search Appliance, a plug-&-play search solution in a bright yellow box that scurries through company intranets, ecommerce sites, and university networks.

Having witnessed Google quickly overtake established Web search engines such as Yahoo, Lycos and Excite, the big desktop players took a look at ‘Google in a box’, wiped their brow, and gulped.

What’s to stop Google taking over the search facility in your PC or Mac? And at $36 billion, even Bill Gates is going to think twice about his usual strategy of buying up the competition’s best ideas.

Apple, as usual, started the ball rolling when it announced its Spotlight technology as part of its forthcoming Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger operating system, which is due before next summer.

Instead of the usual Find tool that searches files and folders, Spotlight shines its torch on just about anything with a file extension: documents, email messages, calendar items, address-book contacts, and stuff that may be buried in a 5-point footnote on page 153 of a PDF. Modelled on the search engine in iTunes, it’s super-fast – with results posted almost instantly as you type the word into the search field.

Microsoft is looking to tackle Google not just on its Windows desktops, but on the Web, too. The software maker is building a search engine from scratch. The look is very Google. You can check out a technical preview of the new Web search engine at http://techpreview.search.msn.com.

Microsoft’s desktop search application builds an index of content on a user’s computer, and makes it searchable. Relevant Internet links are displayed in a pane on the right side of the search tool. It should be available before Microsoft releases the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn, which is expected in 2006. The new Web search engine will be launched officially in the next few months.

Everyone is trying to build the perfect desktop search engine. Former Web-search king Yahoo hopes to beat Microsoft and Google to market with a desktop engine, and there are plans for similar from Lycos and Ask Jeeves. Apart from Apple’s Spotlight, the thing that links all these search engines is their ability to pump adverts right into your hard drive.

Can’t find that image you just saved to disk? Maybe you’d like to switch mortgage while you’re at it. As if pop-ups and animated banners in your Web browser weren’t bad enough, the prospect of spam all over my desktop is not one I care to imagine. Isn’t $36.3 billion enough money already?