Google Gmail, Calendar, Docs Work Offline--With Limits

Google restores long-promised functionality, via HTML5 and some Chrome technology.
Office 365 Vs. Google Apps: Top 10 Enterprise Concerns
Office 365 Vs. Google Apps: Top 10 Enterprise Concerns
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Google has finally restored offline functionality to some of its online apps, a feature it has been promising for months. The company has begun rolling out offline access for Gmail, Calendar, and Docs. Gmail users can start synching limited amounts of email locally and reading the messages offline today. Users of Calendar and Docs should be able to access these apps without an Internet connection in the next few days.

We've been here before. In 2007, Google introduced Gears, an API that allowed Web apps to function offline. By 2009, Google had implemented Gears support in Gmail. Calendar support followed later. But by 2010, Google had decided to support HTML5, an open standard, instead.

Yet, Google's HTML5 offline implementation is incomplete: Offline editing is not yet possible, meaning that Docs users cannot write and store text locally in the absence of an Internet connection. Google insists offline editing is coming. In the meantime, hang on to your copy of Microsoft Word.

What Gmail, Calendar, and Docs users can do is view Gmail messages, Calendar events, and saved Docs and spreadsheet files while offline.

There are some limits: Gmail will store some 3-7 days of recent email locally. To ensure that a message is available offline, star it. Starred messages are saved locally regardless of date.

Offline settings for Calendar and Docs can be accessed from the gear icon in the top right corner of the app screen.

Offline Gmail access requires the installation of a Chrome Web Store app. IT administrators can use Chrome's organizational policy settings to deploy the Gmail app across a company or group.

The reason that Google is using a Chrome extension, explained Google group product manager Rajen Sheth, is that Google's offline implementation uses background syncing technology that's available in Chrome but not in the HTML5 spec, at least at this point. He also pointed to the amount of storage space that Google reserves for offline use, which exceeds what's available using HTML5 storage APIs.

For Sheth, being offline is an aberration rather than a common need. "Offline is not necessarily an everyday use-case," he said in a phone interview. "People are online most of the time now." Even so, he acknowledges, "If you are offline, you really need this."

Google's Chromebooks in particular need to be functional when there's no network connection or when users choose to be offline. Metered mobile data plans offer plenty of incentive for working offline, and there's a privacy rationale too.

"Offline has been a top feature request for users of Chromebooks," said Sheth.

The notion that offline usage is the exception rather than the rule happens to dovetail nicely with Google's business model, which depends on an active network connection to deliver ads. If and when Google implements offline ad serving, we may see greater appreciation for offline scenarios.

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