Google Jan. 27 reached a milestone in its competition against Microsoft with the introduction of offline access for Gmail, a long-awaited feature the company is rolling out to consumers and Google Apps users in the United States and United Kingdom.
In Web application parlance, offline access is when users can access application data even when they’re not connected to the Web. Google will soon follow Gmail offline access with offline access to Google Calendar. This will initially be available to Google Apps users only.
Created in Google’s Gmail Labs, offline access will enable Gmail to load in a Web browser without a Web connection. Users will be able to read, archive or write messages. Users can hit send on composed messages, which will remain in the Gmail outbox.
When the user’s computer reconnects online, Gmail will push the messages from its queue toward their recipients, Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps, told eWEEK before the launch Jan. 27. Google provides a video demo of offline Gmail access here.
Built with the Google Gears browser technology used to let Google Reader, Google Docs and Zoho Mail render data offline, offline access for Gmail is immediately available for Google Apps Standard Edition users and consumers beginning the evening of Jan. 27. Users must download Google Gears to access it.
“We wanted to, with Gears, make it a seamless experience so that users don’t have to download a specialized client or go through a different experience than what they’re used to with the Web browser,” Sheth explained.
Offline access for Gmail consumer and business users is a major step for Google, which is trying to compete with Microsoft, Yahoo’s Zimbra and other e-mail providers by making Gmail as robust as possible for its tens of millions of users.
This is particularly important for users who are trying to access their application data in areas with spotty Internet connections, or with no Web connections at all. Air travel, for example, tends to be the biggest stumbling block for applications that don’t let their users access data offline.
Why Offline Access Is Key
Millions of people travel by plane each year for business and need to access data in their e-mail applications. Now that Gmail can work offline, the application instantly becomes more viable for enterprises, most of which use Microsoft’s on-premises Outlook e-mail client, for which offline access is native.
Sheth agreed, noting the feature is important for business users that use Gmail every day for a large amount of their communication. TechCrunch notes some limitations of the feature here, including the inability to spell check.
To enable offline access, Google Apps Standard Edition users should sign into Gmail and click Settings, then select the Labs tab and pick Enable next to the Offline Gmail feature prompt. After clicking Save Changes, users should see an Offline link in the upper right-hand corner of the account. Click this link to begin offline data synchronization.
While users of the free standard edition can follow these instructions immediately, Google Apps Premier Edition and Google Apps Education Edition users will need their domain administrators to enable Gmail Labs for everyone on the domain first. However, in businesses where admins have marked the New Features check box in the admin console, users will be able to turn on the Gmail offline feature through Gmail Labs.
Sheth said Google will soon let business users test an early version of the offline Google Calendar. When it does launch in the next couple of weeks, it will be enabled for any Google Apps Standard Edition domain worldwide and any Premier Edition and Education Edition domains with the New Features box checked in the admin console.
Google has long been chided for not providing offline access to Gmail, though it has offered offline access to its Docs word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications for nearly a year.
Sheth said the rollout took so long because offline access for Gmail is such a complex animal, mostly because users generate, store and share more data in Gmail than in any other Google App. More here, on TechMeme.