Google Gears Up for Offline Apps

Click the image to see the slideshowThere's no underestimating the current impact of web-based applications. Everywhere you look it seems as if more and more core applications are moving to the web from the desktop and the 800-pound gorilla in this whole shift is clearly Google. But there is one big weakness that web applications have in comparison to their desktop-bound brethren, it's the whole "web" part. Without the Web, there's no application. Anyone who relies on web applications like those from Google or popular products like Zimbra has felt the frustration of sitting on a long train ride without any access to their on-line applications, while the passenger next to them happily works away on their offline versions of Office, Outlook or Lotus Domino. And outside of the whole anticipated separations from the web there's the problem of unexpected disconnections. Nearly everyone has experienced the situation of entering information into an on-line application only to lose everything when their network connection drops out. That's why it's no surprise that Google themselves are trying to solve this problem. Released at Google's Developer Day today (May 31st) is the beta of Google Gears, a tool designed to bring offline access to web-based applications. Google Gears runs as a browser-plugin and it currently supports Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. However, Google Gears is first and foremost a developer-play, as in order for the offline capabilities to work the web-application developer has to enable this functionality using the Google Gears API.

Click the image to see the slideshowGoogle Gears
There's no underestimating the current impact of web-based applications. Everywhere you look it seems as if more and more core applications are moving to the web from the desktop and the 800-pound gorilla in this whole shift is clearly Google.

But there is one big weakness that web applications have in comparison to their desktop-bound brethren, it's the whole "web" part. Without the Web, there's no application.

Anyone who relies on web applications like those from Google or popular products like Zimbra has felt the frustration of sitting on a long train ride without any access to their on-line applications, while the passenger next to them happily works away on their offline versions of Office, Outlook or Lotus Domino.

And outside of the whole anticipated separations from the web there's the problem of unexpected disconnections. Nearly everyone has experienced the situation of entering information into an on-line application only to lose everything when their network connection drops out.

That's why it's no surprise that Google themselves are trying to solve this problem. Released at Google's Developer Day today (May 31st) is the beta of Google Gears, a tool designed to bring offline access to web-based applications.

Google Gears runs as a browser-plugin and it currently supports Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. However, Google Gears is first and foremost a developer-play, as in order for the offline capabilities to work the web-application developer has to enable this functionality using the Google Gears API.

Like most other Google web services interfaces, the Google Gears API uses JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) for its data interchange format, making it fairly simple for web developers to utilize (especially if they are already using Ajax for their application).

While Google Gears will get lots of attention, given the fact that it comes from Google, it isn't the only play in offline capabilities for Web applications. Firefox 3.0, due out later this year, is expected to include support for offline web applications. Also, Adobe's Apollo is designed to provide offline access for rich Internet applications.

On the Google Gears web pages lots of tutorials and sample code are provided to help developers get started adding offline support to their web applications and we found this information to be very useful in testing out these capabilities, especially in their sample application called GearPad, a simple web-based note taking application.

For this initial beta release Google has also enabled their RSS reader application for offline access through Google Gears. Using this application we were able to sync our feeds for offline use and then read them at our leisure while offline (for offline use in Google Gears the reader has been configured to strip out images when in offline mode).

Whenever a web application has been configured to look for and use Google Gears, a pop-up window is launched that asks if you want to let that site use Google Gears and store data on your computer, with the options being Allow and Deny.

If you select the "Remember my decision for this site" the information will be stored and going to Google Gears Settings dialog will let you see which sites you have configured for always allow or deny and remove sites from those settings.

However, this is pretty much it right now for user configuration options for Google Gears. One option we were looking for especially was for local data options. We could definitely see situations where a user might want to control how much data is stored on their system, especially when one takes the potentially massive amount of information in for example a Google Mail account.

Users wanting to test 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.