For those who missed the metaphor, the keynote address by Jeff Huber, Google's VP of engineering, was called "Building Blocks for Better Web Applications."
Developers used to build stand-alone applications and sell them in shrink-wrapped boxes. Google would like to see developers connect modular blocks of code to make mashups that combine data and services from a variety of sources. To help that happen, the company rolled out new developer products to bolster the browser as an application environment and to make its services more accessible.
Gears isn't just a Google project. Adobe, Mozilla, and Opera also have signed on. Huber demonstrated the first Gears-enabled Google application, Google Reader, operating without an Internet connection.
"For the apps to really work, this is really important, to have offline access," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin in an interview following the keynote. "From that point of view, it's quite strategic."
And while industry observers have been quick to point out that a Gears-enabled version of Google Docs might finally give Microsoft Office a run for its money, Brin insisted Gears was developed because it solved a fundamental problem with online applications. "I don't think we think about Microsoft," he said. "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."
"We're trying to evolve the browser as a platform so it supports applications better," explained Google group product manager Sundar Pichai.
In keeping with that goal, Google also introduced Google Mashup Editor, an online tool to help developers make mashups more easily, and Google Mapplets, which combines Google Maps and Google Gadgets, the mini-applications Google users can add to their iGoogle personalized pages.
Tempting though it might be to dismiss the ability to easily put a Google Gadget on a Google Map, Huber insisted that there really is a gadget economy taking shape. "Gadgets are really becoming a fundamental part of Google," he said.
To underscore that point, Huber said that over 100,000 Google Gadgets had been created and that one of them, a PacMan gadget, had gotten 6.7 million page views last week. In Google's new world order, traffic equals revenue.
Brin and Huber made clear that Google is offering more and more developer tools as a way to give back to the Internet community.
At the same time, Google's gift pays dividends to Google. "Google started out and is primarily about search," said Brin. "When you search, you need to have things to find out there. To us, having a rich ecosystem of sites is great."