Google: Goodbye Google Gears, Hello HTML5

It appears that Google is close to driving home the final nail into the Google Gears coffin.

It appears that Google is close to driving home the final nail into the Google Gears coffin.

Google Gears is the search giant's innovative technology for enabling offline applications. However, toward the end of 2009, Google announced that it was lessening its focus on Gears in lieu of support for HTML5, which provides Gears' offline capability and a lot more.

In a Feb. 19 blog post entitled "Hello HTML5," Ian Fette of the Google Gears team, said:

"If you've wondered why there haven't been many Gears releases or posts on the Gears blog lately, it's because we've shifted our effort towards bringing all of the Gears capabilities into Web standards like HTML5. We're not there yet, but we are getting closer. In January we shipped a new version of Google Chrome that natively supports a Database API similar to the Gears database API, workers (both local and shared, equivalent to workers and cross-origin workers in Gears), and also new APIs like Local Storage and Web Sockets. Other facets of Gears, such as the LocalServer API and Geolocation, are also represented by similar APIs in new standards and will be included in Google Chrome shortly."

Obviously the move is not trivial, particularly with a specification that is still evolving, such as HTML5. Indeed, added Fette: "We realize there is not yet a simple, comprehensive way to take your Gears-enabled application and move it (and your entire userbase) over to a standards-based approach. We will continue to support Gears until such a migration is more feasible, but this support will be necessarily constrained in scope."

In an interview with eWEEK, Dylan Schiemann, CEO of SitePen and a vocal advocate for the open Web, said, "I believe that with projects like Chrome Frame, and HTML5 native support in Firefox, Safari and Opera, Gears served its purpose in moving the open web forward. Gears was an important experiment on new ideas for making browsers better for things that were not possible in JS, at a time when browser vendors were afraid to implement features that had not yet been standardized."

Meanwhile, Fette explains Google's moves in pulling back additional support for Gears, while specifying what will be supported.

"We will not be investing resources in active development of new features," Fette said in his post. "Likewise, there are some platforms that would require a significant engineering effort to support due to large architectural changes. Specifically, we cannot support Gears in Safari on OS X Snow Leopard and later. Support for Gears in Firefox (including 3.6, which will be supported shortly) and Internet Explorer will continue."

However, a former Google engineer familiar with the project, said, "I think Gears is dead and being superseded by Chrome and Chrome Frame. All of the people I know from the Gears team are working on Chrome."

The former Googler, who asked for anonymity, added: "If you look at the Gears blog you will see that Gears' support has not been a priority. The tech leads are on to other things. One is on Google Voice; the other is on Chrome Extensions. Ever since Chrome the bet has been moved to WebKit and putting all of the effort there. Gears may trickle along, but HTML5 has all of the features from it basically, so as soon as browsers support them Gears can die."

And die it will. Added Fette to summarize his post:

"Looking back, Gears has helped us deliver much-desired functionality, such as the ability to offer offline access in Gmail, to a large number of users. Long term, we expect that as browsers support an increasing amount of this functionality natively and as users upgrade to more capable browsers, applications will make a similar migration. If you haven't already, you will want to take a look at the latest developments in Web browsers and the functionality many now provide, reach out with questions and consider how you can use these in your Web applications. Gears has taken us the first part of the way; now we're excited to see browsers take us the rest of the way."

Meanwhile, some observers view the issue as strictly evolutionary and not a matter of Gears versus HTML5. A prominent supporter of the open Web and a key developer of various well-known, standards-based Web technologies, told eWEEK:

"The word 'versus' strikes me as odd. Gears predates a lot of the APIs that are taking up equivalent functionality in HTML5 and the experience with Gears informed (and continues to inform) many of the discussions around HTML5 API designs. For instance, AppCache is a simpler-to-use version of the Gears manifest-driven app capture. As close observers have noted, the Chrome and WebKit teams are working hard to implement HTML5 features and get them deployed. Gears represented a good way to introduce new features fast. HTML5 is the standardization and maturation of many of those features. This is what the market for renderer features looks like when it's working. Nothing 'versus' about it."

This industry insider-who because of his position at a competing organization asked for anonymity-added that the move to HTML5 could actually be better for offline Web applications. However, "there aren't very many of them [offline apps]. Fewer still built by companies whose names aren't 'Google.' So it's either neutral to positive. I'm going to go with 'positive.' A standard allows people to build without fear, and multiple browsers are implementing AppCache. That's a good thing, and frankly the best-case outcome of the Gears experiment."