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3/4/2008
02:52 PM
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Google Gears Goes Mobile

Google is making available an application programming interface for storing Web application data on mobile devices.

Google on Tuesday introduced Google Gears for Mobile, its application programming interface for storing Web application data on mobile devices.

The technology is aimed at mobile application developers. It provides them with a way to store data from browser-based applications, like Zoho's Web-based productivity programs, so those applications can be run when no network signal is available. It also allows mobile application users to reduce network data charges by curtailing network traffic between the user's device and the wireless network provider.

Reduced data charges, "certainly would be a positive externality of using a Gears-enabled application, in addition to significant latency reduction," said Matt Waddell, an engineer on Google's mobile team.

One of the goals of Google Gears is to provide a standard mobile development platform, the Web, so that mobile developers don't have to write and maintain code for multiple mobile operating systems.

"We've noticed that developing native clients for the Google properties [on different operating systems] is usually a very time consuming and complicated operation," said Google engineer Andrei Popescu in a video. "The code base tends to be quite large and maintaining it while trying to compile it with four or five different compilers is a lot of work and requires a lot of experience."

But Google Gears also constrains the extent to which companies like Microsoft and Apple can use their control over their respective mobile operating systems to hinder, or exact fees from, competing mobile application providers. (No doubt Microsoft has noticed that Google Gears for Mobile in its initial iteration works on Windows Mobile 5 and 6 devices.) As Popescu explains, "We actually also believe that in the future the Web will become the primary platform for delivering mobile applications."

On Thursday, Apple is expected to announce its iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) and to provide details about its iPhone developer ecosystem. It's widely believed that Apple will exercise some control over how mobile applications can interact with the iPhone and any associated wireless network, to assure security and to generate revenue. If the Web becomes the primary mobile application platform, Apple will have a lot less say in how its phones get used.

Waddell wouldn't specifically comment on whether an iPhone-friendly version of Google Gears is in the works, but he said that Google is working with as many other partners in this area as it can.

It's not yet clear whether the Web is the one mobile platform to rule them all. Right now, Web apps aren't wonderful when network connectivity is slow. Even when networks get faster and more reliable, there will continue to be reasons for applications to run natively on mobile devices, particularly when those applications access in-device electronics like cameras or locally stored address book data.

Google thus is hedging its bets with its Android software stack for mobile devices. "The two initiatives are quite complimentary," said Waddell. "We're looking to extend the mobile Web in as many ways as we can."

However, looking ahead, Waddell said that Google is exploring ways to extend Web applications so they can interact with mobile devices more like native applications. If and when Google figures out how to do that, mobile operating systems will be all but irrelevant. The operating system will be the browser, which is another word for Google.

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