By Harry McCracken | Monday, November 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm
Earlier today, I wrote about the almost-here beta of Google’s Chrome browser for OS X, and mentioned that it doesn’t support Google’s Gears technology for making Web services such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Remember the Milk work without the Web. Turns out the bad news may have less to do with Chrome and more to do with Gears.
The L.A. Times’ Mark Milian has blogged about the lack of Gears in Mac Chrome, and the fact that the upcoming, still-unfinished HTML5 standard will feature Gears-like offline features. Milian got a quote from an unnamed Google spokesman:
We are excited that much of the technology in Gears, including offline support and geolocation APIs, are being incorporated into the HTML5 spec as an open standard supported across browsers, and see that as the logical next step for developers looking to include these features in their websites.
Um, that doesn’t sound good. It falls short of a formal abandonment of Gears–which is an open standard, so it might theoretically live on even if Google lost interest. But it does appear to say that developers who are excited by Gears’ features should look to HTML5, not to Gears. HTML5 isn’t complete, though, and isn’t fully supported by any existing browser. It’s a little like a landlord greeting a prospective tenant by pointing at an empty lot across the street and talking up the skyscraper planned for that space.
Of course, Google has been dropping loud hints that Gears was a goner for awhile now. Apple’s Snow Leopard OS has been out for three months now, but as Milian notes, the standalone version of Gears for use with Firefox and Safari still doesn’t work in it. When I go to the Gears site on my Snow Leopard MacBook Pro, I don’t even get an acknowledgement that there’s a compatibility issue–the “Install Now” button just isn’t there.
Then there was week before last’s unveiling of Google’s Chrome OS. During the Q&A session at the end, I asked about the OS’s offline capabilities, and specifically asked about Gears support. I got a polite answer that didn’t address the Gears portion of my query.
In retrospect, Gears has been a dead technology walking for most of its existence. Back in 2007, when it debuted at the Wall Street Journal’s D conference, I was captivated by its potential. I helped choose it as PC World’s #1 innovation of the year and wrote a piece for Slate hailing it as a landmark. (Disclaimer: The bit in the headline about it possibly killing Microsoft was my editor’s work.)
By April of 2008, though, I was worried about the small number of services–from Google or anyone else–that used Gears, and beginning to conclude that it was less magical than I’d hoped. I was still dejected in July of this year, since very little had happened in the interim except for the addition of Gears support to Gmail.
The funny thing is, the world needs Gears–or something like Gears–more than ever. Many of us are doing a high percentage of our work in Web-based services, and their single greatest limitation is their unavailability when the Web isn’t present. With Chrome OS, Google itself is contending that the time is right for computing devices that are almost completely dependent on the Web. If Gears had matured more over the past two and a half years, and gained more support within and outside of Google, it coulda been a principal part of making all this make sense.
But apparently it won’t be. So I’m giving up rooting for it. Like Google recommends, I’m pinning my hope on HTML5. Maybe its offline support will be everything Gears could have been, but never was.