Google Goes Offline With 'Gears'

Flanked by partners, Google offers new APIs and focuses on its plans to move further into Microsoft's desktop space.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 30, 2007

7 Min Read

At the San Jose Convention Center on Thursday, as Google Developer Day 2007 gets under way in the United States, Google engineering VP Jeff Huber plans to demonstrate how one of his company's online applications, Google Reader, can be used without an Internet connection.

"Ajax-based applications, browser-based applications, are great and have many, many wonderful properties," said Huber. "But we found that, every so often, people get on airplanes."

Google's recently disclosed purchase of browser security startup GreenBorder suddenly makes a lot more sense: Google is moving into Microsoft territory, the desktop.

Google Developer Day 2007 is taking place around the world in 10 different countries: Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In conjunction with the commencement of Google Developer Day 2007 in Sydney, Australia, Google on Wednesday plans to announce Google Gears, a free, open-source multi-platform JavaScript application programming interface (API) that lets Web applications work offline.

"With Google Gears, we're tackling a key limitation of the browser in order to make it a stronger platform for deploying all types of applications and enabling a better user experience in the cloud," said Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, in a statement. "We believe strongly in the power of the community to stretch this new technology to the limits of what's possible and ultimately emerge with an open standard that benefits everyone."

Google hopes Gears will become the standard for adding offline capabilities -- data storage, application caching, and multithreading -- to online applications.

As part of Google's announcement, representatives of Adobe Software, Mozilla Corp., and Opera Software have expressed their support for Google Gears. Kevin Lynch, senior VP and chief software architect at Adobe, welcomed the addition of "a standard cross-platform, cross-browser local storage capability" and said that the Google Gears API would work with Apollo, Adobe's new rich Internet application development platform. Brendan Eich, CTO at Mozilla Corp., and Håkon Wium Lie, CTO of Opera Software, each expressed their appreciation of Gears as a way to extend the Web browser and make it more useful.

David Mitchell Smith, Web analyst for Gartner, characterized the announcement as particularly significant. "The idea of taking Web applications offline is big," he said. While Google Gears can be viewed as a competitive move against Microsoft, he said that's not the only valid frame of reference.

More broadly, Google Gears weakens the case for rich Internet applications. "Rich clients become less compelling the more the Web applications continue to grow," said Smith. "Ajax has certainly taken a bite out of the opportunities that RIA developers thought they had."

Huber acknowledges that the browser isn't necessarily the best platform for every application. "There will certainly be cases that make sense for separate clients," he said. "For example, we have Google Earth as a separate client. The makes sense because we need access to the 3-D accelerator and the machine. But in general, we'd like to make these applications basically as simple as using Google Search. We find more and more cases of these applications being very popular and making a lot of sense."

One reason for this is that many users have become impatient with the hassles of managing desktop applications, particularly during hardware upgrades. "I think the growth of the Internet has really reflected the difficulties people have running desktop software," said Chris DiBona, open source programs manager at Google.

Google's online word processing and spreadsheet applications, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, represent obvious candidates for offline use. "We're not launching those just yet," said Huber, who emphasized that Google Gears will be useful not just to Google but to anyone developing browser-based applications for the desktop or for mobile phones. "This is really the beginning of that process. This is the initial release to get it out to the world so lots more people can get their hands on it." This is really the beginning of a new era for Google as the company moves beyond being a search engine, beyond being an advertising platform, to become an information ecosystem that's increasingly hard to distinguish from the Internet. Search engines and ad platforms can be avoided, but Google, as the supplier of ever more data, has almost become essential. And it may well become so as Google Gears erases the boundary between the desktop and the Web.

Google's emerging ecosystem arises not just from Google Gears, but from many other Google APIs: the Maps API, Ajax Search and Ajax Feed APIs, AdWords and AdSense APIs, the Google Base Data API, the GData API, and the Google Calendar Data API, to name a few. These schemes for accessing Google data and services help developers help themselves while making computing without Google increasingly awkward.

Google's ecosystem works because open source software and open standards have become the only viable approach to the networked world. "Nowadays when you're writing an application, you're not writing every line of code of every piece of infrastructure yourself," said Bret Taylor, group product manager for developer products. "At the bottom layer, you might have a bunch of open source building blocks, like the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server, and the MySQL database. And then on top of that, you might be able to reuse components in the form of Web services to make up the core features of your product, the Google Maps API or perhaps Picasa Web album integration or Amazon S3 for storage. Maybe you want to use Yahoo Pipes to consume some external feed. Then really what you're focusing on is writing the code about what your application specifically is designed to do. And a lot of the infrastructure and services are reused. When we think about our developer programs, we really do think about openness and the standards-based building blocks approach."

Google already touches everyone online through its contributions to open source software. Its code can be found in the Linux kernel, the Apache Web server, and the MySQL database, to say nothing of its contributions to computing clusters and search. But it has only been in the past few years, as Google and the Web have become more closely intertwined, that Google has ramped up its developer outreach.

Taylor said Google dabbled in developer products early on, but 2005 was the year the company found its developer identity, largely because of the Google Maps API.

Launched at the Where 2.0 Conference in 2005, the Google Maps API "has played a big part in the rejuvenation of interest in Ajax and Web development and it has also played a big part in the proliferation of mashups," said Taylor. "When you say the word 'mashup,' it evokes a Google Map in a lot of developers' minds."

People may still be able to separate the Internet from Google, but Google's development efforts are aimed at improving both. The release of Google Web Toolkit (GWT) 1.4 Release Candidate on Wednesday offers just that sort of support. GWT is an open source Java development framework that lets developers write Ajax apps in Java, and then translate them into browser-compliant JavaScript and HTML. "The big selling point is you only write your code once, and our fancy compiler translates into JavaScript and HTML that works in Opera, IE, Firefox, Safari, automatically," said Taylor.

Google is expecting about 5,000 developers worldwide to attend Google Developer Day 2007. Compared with Microsoft's developer community, which includes more than a million professional developers using Visual Studio 2005, that doesn't seem like much. But everyone working on open source Web applications is working for Google. And with Gears, desktop applications become Web applications, too.

"At the end of the day, really, what's good for the Web is what's good for Google because all those sites show up in our search results, they run AdSense, they use Google APIs," said Taylor. "And so we really want to support Web development as a whole to make sure that ecosystem remains really, really healthy."

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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