Google acknowledged last week that, sometimes, people aren't connected to the Internet. It was a strategic turning point for the Web's highest-flying company.
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Google's offline move sets up a confrontation with Microsoft, since the capability addresses a glaring weakness in many online apps, including Google's. Using Google Docs & Spreadsheets or Microsoft Word could become a matter of choice, rather than a matter of connectivity.
Not that anyone at Google would ever contemplate a competitor. "I don't think we think about Microsoft," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said following a speech to developers in San Jose, Calif. "It was a need that we saw we had in our applications, because it sucks to not be able to use them on a plane."
Nonetheless, Google Gears makes browser-based apps more of a threat to Microsoft's business model of getting people to pay for software. Google is first applying it only to its Reader, which checks a person's favorite Web sites and stores updates. Google's mail, calendar, and Docs & Spreadsheets applications are likely next candidates. And any developer can use the platform to offline-enable their apps. By opening up more ways for developers to build on Google data and infrastructure, the company's making it easier for others to tap into the source of its wealth--the half a billion people who visit Google's network of sites every month.
But Google's offline approach also is a recognition that Microsoft's right in insisting that not all computing will take place in the Internet cloud. Microsoft's been touting a vision of "software plus services" that relies on Internet-connected desktop apps, and more enterprise software-as-a-service companies, such as CRM vendor RightNow, recognize the need for some client software.
Gears is typical of how Google's trying to build a developer ecosystem with APIs. The growing portfolio includes APIs for Maps, Ajax Search and Ajax Feed, AdWords and AdSense, Google Base Data, GData, and Google Calendar Data. These schemes for accessing Google data and services help developers help themselves while making computing without Google increasingly awkward. Google hopes Gears will become the standard for adding offline capabilities such as data storage, application caching, and multithreading to online applications.
Kevin Lynch, chief software architect at Adobe, welcomed the addition of "a standard cross-platform, cross-browser local storage capability" and said the Gears API would work with Apollo, Adobe's new Web application development platform. Yet Gears could weaken the case for rich apps that exist outside the browser, says Gartner analyst David Mitchell Smith. "Rich clients become less compelling the more the Web applications continue to grow," says Smith.