Everywhere you look, it seems as if more and more core applications are moving from the desktop to the Web, but for all the advantages of Web applications, this emerging class of software carries a major liability when compared with its desktop-bound brethren: Without the Web, theres no application.
Enter Google Gears, a new tool for adding offline capabilities to Web applications from Google, the 800-pound gorilla of the Web application space.
eWEEK Labs tested the initial beta of Google Gears that the search company released at its Developers Day in late May, and we see a lot of promise in the tool for helping to dissolve the offline access dilemma that threatens to retard the growth of Web-based applications.
For instance, as anyone who relies on Web applications such as those from Google or popular products such as Zimbra can attest, its rather frustrating to sit on a long train ride without any access to your online applications while the passenger next to you happily works away on his or her offline versions of Office, Outlook or Lotus Domino.
Whats more, beyond lifes unavoidable but anticipated separations from the Web, theres the whole problem of unexpected disconnections. Nearly all users have experienced the situation of entering information into an online application, only to lose everything when their network connection drops out.
Google Gears runs as a browser plug-in and is easy for users to install on the browsers and platforms that Gears currently supports—namely, Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
However, Google Gears is first and foremost a developer play, as the Web application developer—for the offline capabilities to work—has to enable this functionality using the Google Gears API.
While Gears will receive lots of attention, given that it comes from Google, it isnt the only play in offline capabilities for Web applications. Firefox 3.0, due later this year, is expected to include support for offline Web applications. In addition, Adobe Systems Apollo is designed to provide offline access for rich Internet applications.
Google has provided plenty of tutorials and sample code on the Google Gears project site, which will come in handy for developers out to get started adding offline support to their Web applications.
We found this information very useful in testing out these capabilities, and we found Googles sample Web-based note-taking application, called GearPad, particularly educational.
For this initial beta release, Google has also enabled its RSS Reader application for offline access through Google Gears. We used this application to synchronize our feeds for offline use and then read them at our leisure while offline. (RSS Reader has been configured to strip out images when in offline mode).
When we accessed the Google Gears-enabled version of RSS Reader, the application produced a pop-up window in which it asked us to allow or deny Gears permission to store Readers data on our test machine.
We had the option of selecting "Remember my decision for this site" to bypass future pop-ups. We could view and modify the allow and deny decisions wed previously made through Gears settings dialog.
For now, this is pretty much the full extent of the user configuration options for Google Gears. One option wed like to see added is that for configuring local data storage options.
We could definitely see situations where a user might want to control how much data is stored on his or her system, especially considering potentially massive amounts of information that an offline-enabled version of Google Mail might consume.
Companies or individual developers interested in testing out the Google Gears plug-in can download it from gears.google.com. Code samples and tutorials for developers are available at code.google.com/apis/gears/sample.html.
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