This week Google finally enabled offline capabilities for its popular Gmail service. For many of us this has been something we'd been waiting on for quite awhile.
While many people rely on Gmail more and more for both their private and work communications, it really couldn't be considered a serious mail option until it could work on airplanes or other situations where an Internet connection is unavailable or poor.
So when offline support became an option in Gmail Labs, I quickly enabled it for my Gmail account. And while I was happy with some of the offline functionality of Gmail, in many ways it was a big disappointment.
In fact, while the term beta is somewhat of a joke when it comes to Google services (Gmail itself is still called beta), this offline capability should definitely be considered beta, if not alpha. In my tests the offline capability proved to be very flaky, when it worked at all.
To set up the offline support, I enabled it within the Gmail Labs area of my Gmail account (accessed by clicking on the erlenmeyer flask icon at the top of the Gmail window). This added an Offline link next to the icon, which when clicked prompted me to install Google Gears. Strangely, on one system that already had newly installed Gears, I was prompted to install it again. After installing Gears I was asked if I wanted to add desktop, start menu or quick start icons for Gmail.
Once enabled, Gmail went through the process of synching messages with the offline Gears cache. This can take a while depending on the size of your Gmail account but I was able to continue working in Gmail while this was going on.
The offline support worked very well in situations where I already had Gmail up and running and lost my connection. Everything continued to work seamlessly and I could compose new messages and read old e-mails. Calendar and contacts are unavailable in offline mode but, interestingly, contact info still came up when typing names in the To: fields of messages.
However, the area where I ran into the most trouble was when starting up Gmail in situations where I was starting out with no Internet connection, the very same scenario as the all important "use it on a plane" situation.
On four of the six systems that I enabled offline support for Gmail, I was unable to bring it up when no connection was available. I used the startup icons provided when installing the offline support, which essentially enable stand-alone browser versions of Gmail, but these didn't work. I launched Firefox and IE in offline mode and tried to go to mail.google.com/mail and gmail.com but again they didn't work.
The only systems in which a start in an unconnected situation worked were on a Mac running Firefox and on a Windows Vista system with a fresh install of Firefox. In both of these systems the offline support worked well, enabling me to compose and access messages without an internet connection.
Two of the other Windows systems had been used in lots of tests and had betas of some browsers installed so it's possible the problems were caused by these betas. However, the other two systems were clean installs of Windows XP and Vista. Using all of the troubleshooting options provided by Google failed to get these systems to work in full offline mode.
One interesting system had Google Chrome installed and when the offline Gmail account created the desktop installs it used Chrome by default as the browser. This install never worked for offline use and, when I checked the FAQ for Gmail offline it only listed IE 7, Firefox 2 and Firefox 3 as supported browsers, so it seems that the offline support for Google Gmail does not yet work in the Google Chrome browser.
The other disappointing aspect of the offline Gmail feature is its lack of user customization. As far as I could tell there was no way to define how much space the offline cache would use on your system, Gmail simply decides on its own how much to cache based on the amount of mail in your account and how it's used.
Given the inconsistent results of my tests, I recommend that anyone interested in using the offline capabilities of Gmail make sure they truly work in disconnected situations before they get on a plane and find that they don't have offline access to their mail.
I am glad that Google has finally enabled offline support for Gmail but this feature will need a bit of work before its ready for serious use. Right now it's well behind other offline features for Web-based mail, such as the very good offline support for Zimbra.