Google gears up offline access for Web apps

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.

Also high on the list of objections to hosted applications is that many of them lack an offline, or desktop PC, component, which prevents users from accessing them when they aren't connected to the Internet. The Gears project aims to address, and in fact eventually stamp out, this problem.

"It's a big shortcoming. It's one of the main ones people mention" for online applications, Smith said. "This [Gears project] isn't a silver bullet. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done."

Currently, Google's own Apps suite of hosted collaboration and communication applications offers what officials acknowledge is rudimentary and less-than-convenient offline access: it lets users export and import files to and from equivalent desktop applications, such as Microsoft's Word and Excel.

"The offline experience is definitely a hole in the product," Rajen Sheth, product manager with Google's Enterprise unit, said several weeks ago.

As part of Wednesday's announcement, Google is providing offline capabilities to its online syndicated feed manager, called Reader, the first concrete example of what developers can accomplish with Gears, Google officials said.

Smith said the Reader example is a fine one but the real excitement will be generated when Google does the same for its Gmail Web mail service and for Docs & Spreadsheets, the online word processor and spreadsheet software that is part of Google Apps.

Gears works with all major browsers and operating systems. It is available online. Google also has a Developer Day Web site where it will webcast the U.S. and U.K. events and post photos, presentations and related material.

Other expected announcements include the following:

  • Google Mashup Editor, an experimental online code editor designed for creating mashups, or online applications built using components such as services and data from existing Web sites. Mashup Editor will simplify the creation of AJAX user interfaces, according to Google.
  • Google Web Toolkit, which has been downloaded more than 1 million [m] times since its release in May 2006, will get support for Gears in its API Library.
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