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6/1/2007
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Google Unplugged: Why Its Offline Approach Is A Strategic Turning Point

It's a challenge to the Microsoft business model, but also a new phase in the increasingly important courtship of Web developers.

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.

At Google's first Developer Day, the company introduced free, open source software called Gears to help developers make Web apps work in offline mode. Gears is a JavaScript API that works with a plug-in for most browsers.

Brin offers blocks for developers to play with.

(click image for larger view)

Brin offers blocks for developers to play with.

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To understand the significance of the move, look at a similar revelation Google had in 2005. That's when programmer Paul Rademacher reverse engineered some code in Google Maps to create HousingMaps.com, combining Google Maps with rental information from Craigslist. That development convinced Google managers they needed to open up as an online platform. The company's publicly available APIs led to today's wave of mashups.

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.

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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.

Google's get-together last week shows it's paying more attention to developers. Google presented its vision of software development by piling TV-sized blocks, painted in Google red, yellow, green, and blue, on the conference stage. If that's too subtle, the keynote address was titled "Building blocks for better Web applications." In addition to Gears, it introduced Mashup Editor for creating map mashups with less than 10 lines of code and Mapplets for combining Maps and Google Gadgets, and it updated its Web developer toolkit, which lets coders write Ajax apps in Java and translate them into browser-compliant JavaScript and HTML.

View the Image Gallery:
Google Developer's Day
Google's pitch is that it takes a lot less code to engage and amass an online audience than it does to craft a standalone desktop app. And that audience can be substantial--like the 6.7 million pages views that the creator of the PacMan widget, which can be installed on iGoogle pages, got last week. "By being able to leverage these building blocks, you're able to create amazing applications in probably a tenth the time it would have taken you previously," says Jeff Huber, Google's VP of engineering.

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.

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