Down memory lane

For the past decade and beyond, my professional and private lives have been driven (and often confounded) by the search for information. Long before the World Wide Web, does anyone care to reminisce about WAIS, Gopher and Archie? The Wide Area Information Server was the brainchild of Brewster Kahle, who went on to sell this primitive distributed text-searching system to AOL for $15m, to develop first the Internet Archive, then Alexa Internet and now – his crowning glory – the WayBack Machine (, which is a gateway to 40 billion web pages dating back to 1996. It’s the stunning simplicity of WayBack that impresses me: type in a URL, select a date and it’s like going back in online time.

Down memory lane

Gopher isn’t an acronym, but the name given to a highly hierarchical document-indexing protocol that became popular thanks to its simple syntax (for 1996) and the lack of any rival that could find information so efficiently. Developed by a team at the University of Minnesota, it was one of those campus cults that took off quite spectacularly, then crashed and burned in a similar manner a couple of years later when the university decided to charge a licence fee for it, in the face of the free WWW. And that name? Take your pick from: pun on ‘go for’; Minnesota University sports team were called the Golden Gophers; or, most unlikely so probably true, the developers wanted items to be connected like gopher holes in the desert.

The Archie FTP search gateway was named after a popular US cartoon-strip character and invented in Canada at the University of Montreal. I wrote more about Archie, relative to the size of the Internet at the time, than most things I cover today. I was obsessed with this tool, which enabled me to search for downloadable files all across the Internet. Again, beautifully simple, it requested file listings from a bunch of FTP archives just once per month (in 1990, bandwidth really was a precious commodity), then stored the list on some local machine. Or you could Telnet to a server directly and quickly query the Archie service for a list. Amazingly, both Telnet and Archie are still alive and well – Google will show you plenty of sites to play with. Better still, don’t Google; try something different, which is what I’ve been doing.

Submerged In Search

For the past month, I’ve been submerged in search engines, having agreed to Labs test Desktop search clients. Space restraints meant that only ten would fit into the main Labs piece, so we chose them carefully from the 20 hopefuls. Some of these were rejected because they were unstable betas or shared their base technology with another candidate. In the latter cases, I opted for whichever offered the best performance/value compromise, so free Yahoo! got reviewed instead of the commercial X1 engine that powers it.

Some of the applications that came my way proved not to be Desktop search engines at all, but still interesting enough to overview their capabilities rather than a full-blown Labs test. This is why I’m starting with an odd one out – Copernic. I’ve been vocal in praising Copernic Desktop Search before and it’s been my Desktop client of choice for a couple of years until this round of tests, when it was finally toppled by… no, go and read the review! I’ve also long been a fan of Copernic’s industrial-strength consumer and small-business search solution, which bundles Agent Professional, Tracker and Summarizer into the Complete Copernic Product Suite. What do you get for €119 (£82 exc VAT) that a totally free service can’t provide? Well, comprehensiveness, customisation and total search integration. Copernic Agent Professional is a meta-search engine like no other – it sends your single query to more than 1,000 search engines across 120 specialist categories, combines the returned information, with duplicates removed, and makes them available for extensive further filtering. You don’t have to use its preset categories, but can combine and refine them to create custom searches for every occasion, and even add your own engines if they’re not already included. This is unlikely, because Copernic Agent also searches the so-called Deep Web, those specialist databases that are all too often hidden and don’t get indexed by mainstream search engines.

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