"What that's going to allow a user to do, the first time they come to Docs and see the offline link, they'll install the open-source Gears extension, and all documents will automatically be synced," said Ken Norton, product manager for Google Docs. "If you lose your Internet connection, you can still open your documents and make edits."
The initial process of copying online Google Docs files to a local device and synchronizing local copies with remote versions could take some time if the files in question are large or numerous. Thereafter, the process should be quicker because only changes between local and remote files are synced.
Google launched Gears last May as a way to make Web applications more comparable with desktop applications and to improve the experience of using them. With senior Google executives like CEO Eric Schmidt, co-founder Sergey Brin, and engineering VP Jeff Huber talking the technology up at the time, Gears was seen as a sign that Google intended to challenge Microsoft Office on its home turf, the desktop.
Since then, that fight has been more of a series of skirmishes than an all-out melee. Google has enabled Google Gears support in Google Reader and Zoho has enabled Gears support in its online word processing application, Zoho Writer. There's an experimental version of Google's Picasa Web Albums that works with Google Gears for Mobile. But Gears hasn't exactly prompted a wholesale abandonment of traditional desktop apps.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has countered with the introduction of its Silverlight technology and Adobe has rolled out its AIR platform.
Until today, talk of competition between Google Docs and Microsoft Word was largely premature because Google Docs just wasn't functional without an Internet connection. Now, however, the games can begin, even if it's fair to say that the two word processing applications are aimed at different users.
Norton said that Gears support for Google's other online applications will be coming soon. He described the process as a rolling launch, meaning that some Google Docs users will see Gears support enabled before others. Spreadsheets, he said, will sync with Gears and be accessible in read-only mode when offline, at least for the time being. Google Presentations will see Gears support soon, he said.