Google is set to answer a frequently ringing bell by making its Google Docs word processing application available offline, the company said March 31.
Over the next few weeks, the company will let users edit word processing documents in the Google Docs SAAS (software as a service) application without a Web connection.
Users will be able to go to docs.google.com without a connection and work on Google Docs. When users do go online, the changes they made while working on documents offline will appear.
This is an important feature that will let users create, documents, revise them and save changes while traveling in planes, trains and automobiles where there is no Web access, or in places suffering from low latency and spotty Internet connections.
Such a feature is particularly important for traveling knowledge workers who want to work on documents and reports.
Offline access is also important to help Google keep up with smaller SAAS rivals such as Zoho and Transmedia, both of which have been offering offline access to their word processing applications, Zoho Writer and Glide 2.0, since August 2007.
More broadly, Google sees Docs and its broader Apps suite as an online alternative to Microsoft's Office applications. Microsoft is countering with a hosted apps project of its own, code-named Albany.
Microsoft may be behind on the SAAS front, but Google has a long way to go before Docs catches a whiff of Office's success, according to Forrester Research analyst Kyle McNabb.
McNabb said anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 people have called up Docs & Spreadsheets URLs on a monthly basis, compared with 90-plus million downloads of OpenOffice.org and the 500 million desktops that have Microsoft Office.
"With this feature added, more people may use Google Docs & Spreadsheets as an alternative to Microsoft Office, especially if they can tie Gears into their mail and calendaring support," McNabb said.
Google said offline access for Docs is rolling out first to consumer users, followed by a launch to Google Apps domains for businesses. Businesses that want their Google Apps users to try it out now can opt in using the admin control panel.
Moreover, users can expect offline access for most Google Apps in the future, according to a company spokesperson.
"We're working to make more Web applications and functions work where connections are unavailable (including editing spreadsheets and viewing/editing presentations, and bring[ing] offline functionality to other apps)," the spokesperson said in an e-mail March 31. "But this gives a taste of the future, when you'll always be able to access the cloud."