Gmail Labs has really paid dividends since launching last June. The SMS text chat in Gmail is great and the ability to turn Gmails into Google Docs is nice but Gmail Labs should hit a home run with its new offline access for Gmail, which allows users to access their Gmail without a Web connection.
Google Apps Senior Product Manager Rajen Sheth and I chatted about this feature, which began rolling out last night to consumers and Google Apps users to enable in the Google Labs section under settings.
Sheth said Google employees have been able to test offline access to Gmail for months, which is why Google knows it's ready for a public release after so many months in development. Why did it take so long? Sheth said:
"One of the biggest things is the volume of the data. When you think about how many e-mails you get in a day, or the average business user gets in a day versus the number of documents that are created. We're talking orders of magnitude more."
Another thing I asked him about is why Google isn't releasing offline access to Gmail and Google Calendar at the same time. After all, e-mail and calendaring functionality tends to go hand in hand. Sheth said:
"We are working on getting it into each of those code bases and releasing it into production, so there is a little bit of a discrepancy in terms of when it will be turned on for all users."
Google's Andy Palay sums up how offline Gmail works, which is important because it underscores a theme at Google:
"Gmail uses Gears to download a local cache of your mail. As long as you're connected to the network, that cache is synchronized with Gmail's servers. When you lose your connection, Gmail automatically switches to offline mode, and uses the data stored on your computer's hard drive instead of the information sent across the network... Our goal is to provide nearly the same browser-based Gmail experience whether you're using the data cached on your computer or talking directly to the server."
Google Gears is the open-source technology Google created to allow offline access for Google Reader, Google Docs, now Gmail and soon Google Calendar. It's also baked into Google's Chrome Web browser, allowing Web apps to look and feel like a desktop app. I asked Sheth what the benefit of more users using Google Gears would be. He explained:
"The great thing there is people download this once for Gmail and then when we roll our Calendar, they don't have to download more, or let's say when we roll this out with other applications down the line. Let's say it's not even us. Let's say a third-party decides they want to build offline access for their apps. Many people will have it already downloaded."
The implication is clear; tens of millions of people use Gmail, and if they opt to use offline Gmail they'll have to download Gears. This opens up a broader opportunity for Gears in the future, particularly as we move to a more mobile world. When cell phone service conks out, a mobile Gears can pick up the slack for disrupted Web apps.
In fact, I suspect all Google Web apps will eventually work offline thanks to Gears, which as ReadWriteWeb's Bernard Lunn has pointed out, Google has been reluctant to wield with any real authority.
Will offline Gmail be the tipping point for broader adoption of Gears, and what benefit will Google users be able to realize from having this plug-in on their machines?
While I had Sheth on the phone, I also asked him about the Google Web Drive, or Gdrive online storage service, as it's been detected by some great sleuthing bloggers. I asked him when we could expect to see the Gdrive. He could have denied it, but he said "there's nothing I can comment on there."
I then asked if Gdrive is something Google is dogfooding internally. He laughed and repeated "nothing I can comment on there." But I could tell he wanted to.
So, between Google's indiscretions on the Web regarding the product and Sheth's coy response, I'm guessing we'll see it this year. I have no proof, but it's a safe hunch.