Google Inc. has become the first tech heavyweight to tackle the daunting task of uncluttering computers, introducing a program that quickly scours hard drives for documents, eMail messages, instant messages, and past web searches.

With the free desktop program, Google hopes to build upon the popularity of its internet-leading search engine and become even more indispensable to the millions of people who trust the Mountain View, Calif.-based company to find virtually anything online.

The new product, available at http://desktop.google.com, ups the ante in Google’s intensifying battle with software giant Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., which owns the world’s second most popular search engine.

Google’s desktop invasion heralds a momentous step into a crucial realm–the challenge of managing the information glut that has accumulated during the past decade, as society becomes more tethered to increasingly powerful computers.

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    “We think of this [program] as the photographic memory of your computer,” Marissa Mayer, Google’s director of consumer web products, said Oct. 14. “It’s pretty comprehensive. If there’s anything you once saw on your computer screen, we think you should be able to find it again quickly.”

    Although its desktop program can be used exclusively offline to probe hard drives, Google designed it to run in a browser so it will meld with its online search engine. Google.com visitors who have the new program installed on their computer will see a “desktop” tab above the search engine toolbar, and all their search results will include a section devoted to the hard drive in addition to the web.

    The desktop search program provides Google with a powerful magnet to lure traffic from its chief online search rivals, Microsoft’s MSN and Yahoo Inc., both of which have been improving their technology.

    “Other major search engines will undoubtedly launch similar offerings in the next few months, but they will have to match Google’s offering to keep their customers happy or best it to gain new converts,” Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li wrote in a report.

    A smattering of lesser-known companies, such as X1 Technologies of Pasadena, already offer desktop search programs. Google is the first company among high-tech’s household names to try to make it easier for people to sift through the information mishmash on computer hard drives. It dispenses with the confinement of Microsoft’s current model of files and folders.

    Google’s program trumps Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, which plans to deliver its long-awaited desktop search tool by the end of the year. AOL and another search engine maker, Ask Jeeves, are reportedly close to entering the fray. Yahoo said that it “remains highly focused on evolving our products to empower users to manage all their digital content wherever it may reside.”

    Google is betting the program will expand its search engine audience and encourage even more online searches than it already processes–a pattern that would yield more advertising revenue, the company’s main moneymaker.

    Google began working on the program about a year ago, Mayer said, in response to a familiar refrain: “Why can’t I search my computer as easily as I can search the web?”

    Currently compatible only with the Windows operating system, Google’s 400-kilobyte desktop program takes some five or six hours to index the average computer’s hard drive.

    Each program user can select the types of information to be indexed and searched. The product can pore through the files using Microsoft Office applications and several types of eMail programs, including Microsoft’s Outlook and Hotmail and Yahoo.

    Google’s desktop search still doesn’t work with the company’s new eMail service, called Gmail. If desired, the program automatically saves all AOL instant message conversations and creates a cache of all web pages surfed by a computer.

    Google’s desktop search program is so powerful that analysts cautioned computer users to carefully consider what kind of material they want indexed, particularly if they’re sharing a computer with family, friends, or office colleagues.

    Google plans eventually to offer some kind of password-protection to restrict desktop searches for individual users.

    “People are going to have to think pretty carefully about this,’ Li said during an interview. “There are some things that you probably don’t want indexed on a computer.”