Google doesn't deny that it's working on bringing offline access to two major Web applications, Gmail and Calendar, but a sign emerged Thursday that the feature--which would be a major expansion of the applications' utility and competitive threat--is due soon.
"Gears on Gmail and Calendar in approximately 6 weeks. Just had a preview at Google offices. Not sure if it is Google Enterprise only," said Andrew Fogg, chief marketing and strategy officer for Web 2.0 consultancy Kusiri, in a Twitter post Thursday.
Gears, formerly called Google Gears, is an open-source extension for Firefox and Internet Explorer now and Safari and Opera later that, among other things, lets Web browsers store and use data even while offline. That can make Web applications vastly more useful and a more viable replacement for PC-based software such as Microsoft Outlook. With Gears, Google today offers offline editing for its word processing service and offline viewing of its spreadsheet and presentation service.
Google Apps competes with Microsoft's Outlook-Exchange combination as well as with many other online and offline applications, including Yahoo's online e-mail application, Zimbra, which already offers offline access to e-mail.
Gmail has won plaudits from some users--I like it myself--but today they can't use it directly unless they're connected to a network, and I spend a lot of time working where there's no access. Of course, with Google's free use of IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol), software such as Mozilla's Thunderbird also can be used to handle e-mail while offline, so it's not as if Gmail users are helpless without a network connection.
Customers who pay $50 per year per user for Google Apps Premier Edition get more storage space, better technical support, and other features. Personally, I'd be surprised if Google restricted offline access only to those customers, in particular because offline access imposes a burden on the local PC, not Google's data centers, and makes the service and Google's cloud computing argument stronger. But it could be an opportunity to sell more subscriptions.
Just yesterday I asked Google about offline access for Gmail and Calendar and they gave me their usual noncommittal reply that more or less indicates it's in the works.
Two tricky things about Gears is deciding what data to cache locally on a computer and how to synchronize data when a network connection is restored, especially with group-edited content such as documents or calendars. There are hints how Google might go about getting around one challenge, though; according to the Google Operating System blog, some users saw a "Use Google Calendar Offline" note last year that said Gears would let a user view and edit the next three months of a calendar.
Fogg also twittered another potentially useful extension of the Google Apps service is under way, support for technology called SyncML that would make it easier to synchronize Gmail contacts with the address books of mobile devices. Newer versions of SyncML also support "push e-mail," which means a mobile device automatically gets new e-mail without having to be commanded to check.
"SyncML for Google contacts next month. Soocial (sic) watchout. My guess: its related to the sync that they worked on with Apple for 3G iPhone," Fogg said in the Twitter post.
Update 11:02 a.m. PDT: Google offered an official but vague comment on the Gears work in Calendar and Gmail: "We're working on Gears-enabling a number of our products, but we don't have a specific timeline to announce."