Standards groups are unwieldy and slow-moving. But when it comes to expanding what browsers can do, they turned out to be a faster way for Google to bring a handful of features to the Web than its Gears plug-in.
So it comes as no surprise that Google, after letting the Gears project spin down over the last year and a half, is removing the software altogether from its Chrome browser.
"It's finally time to say goodbye to Gears," said Gears team member Aaron Boodman in a blog post. "There will be no new Gears releases, and newer browsers such as Firefox 4 and Internet Explorer 9 will not be supported. We will also be removing Gears from Chrome in Chrome 12."
Google launched Gears with much fanfare as an open-source project in 2007. The headline feature was the ability to get Web applications to work offline--in other words, when the network connection was down--and the star examples were Google Docs and Gmail.
But only a few other Web developers, such as Zoho, WordPress, and iStockphoto, dabbled with Gears, and Google decided instead to focus on bringing Gears features to Web browsers through standards rather than its own plug-in.
One thing is very different about the browser landscape now compared to 2007: Google has a browser. When Gears was introduced, a plug-in for others' browsers was about the best Google could do to advance the Web programming state of the art. Now, with Chrome, it's got its own vehicle to bring new Web features to market. Chrome accounts for about 10 percent of browser usage worldwide today, making it a much more effective vehicle for advancing the Web than Gears ever was--in particular because browser rivals also are adding many features found in Gears.
When it comes to offline support, the key idea is a mechanism to let the browser store data. Several of these are available or nearly so, including HTML5's Application Cache. Another important one that's catching on is IndexedDB. Mozilla and Microsoft, the top two browser makers, endorsed IndexedDB, and the technology prevailed over a rival called Web SQL Database.
Technologies such as these will likely be the way Google restores offline access to Google Docs, a feature it promised would arrive "early in 2011."
The writing has been on the wall for Gears since Google announced its preference for HTML5 standards over Gears in December 2009. But its influence lives on in more ways than just offline data storage.
Boodman pointed to a handful of features demonstrated with Gears that have made their way into Web standards:
The File interface, which adds better file-handling features to browsers, for example letting people upload a video in separate pieces called blobs so a 500-megabyte file transfer won't be derailed by a flaky network.
Geolocation lets the browser--once given a user's permission--tell a Web application the physical location of that user. That can help locate the person on a map, for example.
Notifications let Web applications produce the sorts of pop-ups so widely used by e-mail, instant messaging, and other communication software.
These standards are in varying stages of implementation in Web browsers right now, but all of them look to have solid support among browser makers. In the end, Gears was probably more of a success than a failure.