Google gears up offline access for Web apps

By , IDG News Service |  Software

Google Inc. will tackle offline access, one of the thorniest problems facing Web-hosted applications, when it releases an early-stage browser extension called Gears to developers worldwide on Wednesday.

The launch of the open-source Gears is tied to Google's Developer Day, the company's largest event aimed at third-party software developers, which is scheduled for Thursday. For the first time, it will take place in 10 cities around the world.

Google hopes developers will give Gears a test drive and send feedback on how it can be improved. Ultimately, Google would like to see the Gears effort yield an industry standard for providing offline access to Web-hosted applications.

"This effort is very significant and interesting. It's, in a lot of ways, the next step for the Web," said David M. Smith, a Gartner Inc. analyst.

Although some makers of online applications have developed offline components for them, the Google approach stands to have a widespread impact because it is focused on developers and on creating an open standard the entire industry can benefit from, Smith said.

Backing Gears publicly at this time are Adobe Systems Inc., Mozilla Corp. and Opera Software ASA, although Google is in confidential conversations with other IT vendors, Google officials said.

A glaring omission on the list is Google rival Microsoft Corp., with its Internet Explorer browser, the most widely used in the world. "Microsoft will have to either decide to join this effort or come up with something of its own," Smith said, adding that the issue of offline access is screaming for a solution.

Adobe will make the Gears application programming interface (API) available on its Apollo platform, which itself is designed for building offline components for online applications. As makers of popular alternatives to IE, Mozilla and Opera are collaborating with Google on the Gears project because they share the belief that offline access is critical for Web applications.

Google is a major backer of the Web-hosted application model, which has been gaining momentum over the past year. Because applications are hosted by vendors, customers generally spend less time, effort and money deploying and maintaining them than packaged software they install on their own servers.

Another perceived benefit is that these Web-hosted applications often are designed from the ground up to allow groups of users to share documents easily and collaborate on them online, instead of each employee working individually on a file on his PC and later using e-mail to gather feedback on it.

However, real challenges exist for the hosted model, including concerns about the availability and reliability of vendors' servers and about the security of corporate data when it is housed externally on vendors' premises.

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