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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Google Gears Released

I jumped out of the Google Developer Day in Hamburg, Germany, because this is big news (coming straight from Sydney’s Developer Day): Google released an offline web app framework called Google Gears. One of the first applications is an offline version of Google Reader. Google’s Gears homepage explains that Gears is ...

... an open source browser extension that enables web applications to provide offline functionality using following JavaScript APIs:

- Store and serve application resources locally
- Store data locally in a fully-searchable relational database
- Run asynchronous Javascript to improve application responsiveness

Google in a press release states that Gears “marks an important step in the evolution of web applications because it addresses a major user concern: availability of data and applications when there’s no Internet connection available, or when a connection is slow or unreliable.” They go on to say that making the browser environment more powerful is increasingly important (Google snatched up a couple of Firefox developers – this makes even more sense in the light of this announcement).

You can install this for a couple of operating systems, though Google warns that this is an early-access developer’s release (which would be called Alpha, but Google calls it Beta). Like many recent announcements, this one too had been foreshadowed in Google’s internal documents which leaked last year. By moving web applications into the offline sector, Google Inc is moving into Microsoft Office competition territory even more clearly.

Gears is also free & open source, so Google is hoping to get the community to accept this technology and run with it. Without developers, Gears won’t be able to take off, which might explain the announcement around the time of the Developer Day. Already, according to Google’s press release, other big industry players are in the boat, including Adobe (senior vice president Kevin Lynch: “[t]he Gears API will also be available in Apollo, which enables web applications to run on the desktop”), Mozilla (chief technology office Brendan Eich: “a significant step forward for web applications”) and Opera (chief technology officer Håkon Wium Lie: “we’re excited to work with Google to extend the reach and power of Web applications”). Google says their “long-term hope is that Google Gears can help the industry as a whole move toward a single standard for offline capabilities that all developers can use.” Being so nice and open to turn a powerful online/ offline web framework into a commodity naturally makes business sense for today’s web application leader, Google; we saw what happens when they figure something doesn’t make business sense, even when it benefits developers.

TechCrunch’s Nick Gonzalez in the meantime reviews how Gears is already enabled for Google’s Feed reader:

Reader will add a green download button to the user interface. When you click the button, Reader will download the last 2,000 messages to your computer, preparing your computer to work offline or under a spotty internet connection.

Downloading will take place in the background, using the asynchronous JavaScript API. While offline you can read these articles and carry out your usual sharing and tagging. When you get back online, just click the button and Reader will sync your offline activity with their server. Right now the syncing is initiated manually, but it’s easy to see that it will become more seamless as the program develops. Gears could conceivably solve the large data overhead problems of Google’s AJAX applications, pushing updates to your desktop instead of slowing down your browser.

At the live presentation in Mountain View, Google suffered from the web OS equivalent to the Windows blue screen (you know, a browser error message) but this may have had more to do with the connection Google set up for the presentation than product bugs.

Ongoing comments

[Thanks Kevin G., Googlaxy and Krishnan S.]

[This post was updated as new information came in.]


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