Is Google in the Right Gear?

Opinion: I think Google Gears is cool, but a handful of experts weigh in on the significance of the search giant's technology.

Now that some of the hype has died down a bit about Google Gears—the search giants open-source technology for creating offline Web applications—I thought Id take a look at what folks are saying about the technology.

To me it holds a lot of promise, but I was concerned about what others had to say.

The typically secretive Google dropped a good deal of information about Gears around the time of its Google Developer Day May 31. Since then, the company hasnt had a lot of official word on the technology, but others have taken up the slack.

However, when asked whether they thought Google Gears would be a game-changing technology, many RIA (rich Internet application) experts weighed in with varying perspectives.

"I think its far too early to determine if Gears will be game-changing, and/or if other organizations doing similar work, such as Adobe, and Zimbra, will constructively engage as Gears moves forward," said Peter OKelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. "While the Gears architecture may be appropriate for page-centric solutions, its also not clear if it will be successful in addressing the more compound document-oriented, occasionally connected types of work exemplified by products such as Notes and Groove."

In the initial press release announcing the technology, Adobe and Mozilla said they will be working with Gears.

"My initial reaction is that 1) people are realizing that offline is valuable, 2) it actually reinforces the point of software and service (not software-as-a-service alone), 3) other vendors [Zimbra] are working on offline, and 4) the open-source effort around Gears will have to carry the day since it appears that Google has left this initially pretty bare-bones," said Mike Gotta, OKellys Burton Group colleague.

Guy Creese, another Burton Group analyst, said he believes Google Gear is game-changing technology.

"Its a capitulation by Google that Microsoft is right—its all about SAAS and software, not just SAAS," Creese said. "The important question to ask is, How useful are the APIs? Do they do most of the heavy lifting, or is Google leaving that up to developers? Put another way, can I make several API calls and Im done, or do I have to make 42 separate calls in an arcane sequence before Im done?"

Miguel de Icaza, vice president of developer platforms at Novell, said he "cant wait" to use Gears. Is it a game changer? "Absolutely! This is like when Google showed the world that the Web browser was still alive and kicking with their extensive use of AJAX [Asynchronous JavaScript and XML]."

/zimages/7/28571.gifeWEEK Labs tests a beta of Google Gears. Click here to see what they found.

Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research, said Gears is "forcing Microsofts hand—forcing Microsoft to rush to market with an alternative, this while trying to promote and sell traditional products, specifically its efforts to sell a very rich but also very bulky and expensive Microsoft Office 2007. Google Gears also lends credibility to Adobes play in the rich Internet application space."

David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the popular Ruby on Rails framework and a poster child for the Web 2.0 generation, said he doesnt think "the offline thing is such a big deal, but Im kind of taking a wait-and-see approach."

Scott Dietzen, president and chief technology officer at Zimbra, which took a similar approach to Google Gears with its Zimbra Desktop—adding support for leveraging a micro-server, database and asynchronous processing in the background, among other features—said Gears looks like Googles attempt to take simpler general-purpose Web applications offline.

"Google Gears is yet another attractive tool in the developers toolbox," Dietzen said. "It follows a similar architecture to that which we took within the Zimbra Desktop. While not game-changing in and of itself, the broader movement to treat the Web [specifically Web 2.0] as the universal development platform—for both on-line and off-line applications—certainly is."

Google Gears dictates a specific way of client storage that is likely to be widely accepted, said Coach Wei, chief technology officer at Nexaweb. "Lack of ways for storing data on the client side [beyond simple cookies] is a major limitation of Web applications," he said. "How do you store data, using a relational database or just flat files? If you use a relational database, which database do you use? It is not easy to provide a uniform answer."

However, "with Google Gears, SQL database is likely to become the widely accepted way of providing client-side storage," Wei said.

Meanwhile, Jason Bloomberg, an analyst with ZapThink, has doubts about Googles ability to make much of a mark with Gears.

"Google Gears is hardly game-changing," Bloomberg said. "Its far from being the threat to desktop software or any kind of bona fide challenge to Microsoft. Instead, it enables developers to add the offline capability thats a core part of many rich Internet application solutions today. In other words, the commercial/enterprise software world has had offline capability for a while now, and Google is taking a step to bringing a lightweight, open-source toolkit to the masses that will enable a broader range of developers to add this capability to their Web apps."

Moreover, said AMRs Murphy, "its not a battle for end customers at this point, its a battle for developer mindshare and loyalty—Web developers and emerging RIA developers and ultimately developers designing for other devices, who are being urged to adopt one platform or the other. Adobe looked good from a product perspective—with Flex today and ultimately Apollo, but it doesnt exactly have a lock on developers and didnt have the kind of compelling market influence that Microsoft has. Google changes that—Google being so closely associated with the Internet part of RIA, Google likely to be more operating system-neutral, and Google getting a ton of attention everywhere these days."

In addition, commenting on Googles penchant for secrecy and control, Murphy said: "Of course, Google today doesnt have any great deal of developer loyalty or appeal—that will be a challenge for them. They havent been accustomed to opening up anything readily to developers or partners—always wanting to control very carefully the simplicity of the consumer/end-user experience. But theyve got to change that."

Moreover, "the Gears idea is very compelling—but at some point its got to prove it can work, and it cant be in perpetual beta the way a lot of other things are at Google," Murphy said.

What do you think of Google Gears? Write me at

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