Google Unplugged: Why Its Offline Approach Is A Strategic Turning Point

It's a challenge to the Microsoft business model, but also a new phase in the increasingly important courtship of Web developers.
Offline's Business Benefits
Arizona State University is one of the most aggressive enterprise adopters of Google apps, with more than 40,000 students and faculty using Gmail instead of campus-run e-mail, and a portal to provide access to calendar, and Docs & Spreadsheets. Adrian Sannier, ASU's technology officer, is eager for his team to deploy and develop using Google's online-offline framework, but he sees the risk for Google to mess up what makes the apps so appealing. Google's strength is making a light, browser-based client that makes adoption and upgrades easy, he says. "Depending on how heavy the offline client starts to become, that has the potential to dilute Google's advantage."

Prudential Preferred Properties CRE, a real estate firm affiliated with Prudential Financial, has about 80 employees using Gmail and Google Calendar. Offline access to Web apps hasn't been a high priority there; network uptime is so critical to doing business, if the network goes down, there are more serious problems than whether the calendar is available, IT director Cameron Daily says. Still, Daily would like to give agents on-the-go access to their Gmail archives and Calendar when they're not online. Aung Zayar Lwin, head of IT at building consultancy Drew George & Partners, sees similar potential for offline mail and calendar. Neither Daily nor Lwin sees Google Gears as any reason to stop using Microsoft Office. Prudential just bought new Office licenses, and Lwin expects Drew George eventually to deploy Office 2007. Offline access or not, Google Docs & Spreadsheets doesn't stack up on features. The only reason Lwin sees to even experiment with Google Docs & Spreadsheets now is for the online collaboration capability.

Beanbag chairs -- check. Now wheres the foosball?

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Beanbag chairs -- check. Now wheres the foosball?

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Google's not offering much help for IT planning. Google Docs & Spreadsheets is an obvious candidate for offline use, but it's not saying when it might offer offline options. Huber notes that apps from companies other than Google may be the most important uses for Gears, since the APIs can be used to develop any browser-based application for PCs or mobile phones.

Google expected about 5,000 developers across 10 cities worldwide for its Developer Day. In Beijing, about 800 programmers shook off the drizzling weather to attend one of two tracks, one for the Google product development platform and the other for Linux and open source. They heard Shiva Shivakumar, founder and director of Google's Seattle R&D Center, praise Chinese developers for their skills and potential to "develop world-class products." Zhou Jiahao, an R&D manager with a company that provides local mobile search, came away interested in using the improved map mashup features Google announced.

Compared with Microsoft's developer community, which includes more than a million professionals using Visual Studio 2005, Google's community doesn't seem like much--yet.

The measure of Google's success in attracting developers will be in whether they help move the company beyond being a search engine or an advertising platform, to become an information ecosystem that's increasingly hard to separate from the Internet. Search engines and ad platforms can be avoided, but Google, as the supplier of ever more data such as maps through its API, is becoming more essential. "When you say the word 'mashup,' it evokes a Google Map in a lot of developers' minds," says Bret Taylor, Google's product manager for developer products. Gears tries to extend that by blurring the boundary between the desktop and the Web. "Really, what's good for the Web is what's good for Google," Taylor says, "because all those sites show up in our search results, they run AdSense, they use Google APIs."

Getting online apps to run well offline is certainly good for Internet users. Google's theory is that helping people unplug those apps will make the company all the more indispensible when they log back on.

-- with J. Nicholas Hoover, Richard Martin, and Ding Yaling of InformationWeek China