Web 2.0: Google's Ambition Beyond The Cloud

As Gears and caching in HTML5 converge, Google users can expect a wider range of applications, on computers and mobile devices, that can function offline.
In a wide-ranging discussion at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Google VP of engineering Vic Gundotra said that the company plans to offer a whole suite of offline-enabled applications.

Google is already part way there, with Gears-enabled offline caching in Gmail, Docs, YouTube, Reader, Picasa, and Calendar. But as Gears and caching in HTML5 converge, Google users can expect a wider range of applications, on computers and mobile devices, that can function without constant Internet connectivity.

Gundotra's statement of commitment confirms that Google is moving from the cloud to the desktop just as Microsoft is moving from the desktop to the cloud.

It also suggests that Google's and Microsoft's denials that Microsoft Office and Google Docs are in competition are less than forthright. Google for years has preferred to characterize Docs as a collaboration tool that doesn't compete directly with Office.

And in an interview Wednesday, Microsoft Business Unit president Stephen Elop said that the fundamental threat to Microsoft is not from some unnamed company that has "bolding in the browser" or "software for free," it's from a failure to innovate.

Asked about Elop's dismissal of Docs as something less than real-word processing, Gundotra responded, "He has to say that."

Gundotra too said what he had to. In response to interviewer Tim O'Reilly's question about whether Google plans to buy Twitter, Gundotra fell back on the industry standard talking point, "We don't as a policy comment about rumor or speculation."

For Web 2.0 companies, the standards are open, but the communication remains tightly controlled.

But Gundotra did affirm the importance of mobile devices to Google's future. Not that this is in any way unexpected, but he acknowledged that the center of gravity for the tech industry is moving from the computer to the phone and that Google sees voice search as a major opportunity.

Phones also, he said, have characteristics that aren't shared by desktop computers: eyes (camera), ears (sound input), skin (touch and orientation sensing), all in a geographic context. That opens up new development opportunities.

"We have to recognize that when we build software for phones, this is not the same model that we have on the PC," he said.

Echoing a point made by Cloudfour's Jason Grigsby in a Web 2.0 session on Wednesday, Gundotra suggested that, thanks to HTML5, Web standards are poised to become the preferable mode of mobile development. The reason is that writing and maintaining native application code for dozens of mobile platforms is a tremendous burden for developers.

"What's happening is the Internet is emerging as a viable platform instead," he said.

To prove his point, Gundotra showed off a prototype Web application for Gmail running on the iPhone and an Android phone. It appeared to work as well as a native iPhone app.

"Imagine if you could build apps that ran across all these phones because of the Web," he said.

It appears many developers are starting to look beyond restrictive SDKs to do just that.

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