Tag Archives | Google Gears

The Permanently Unfulfilled Promise of Google Gears

This is the umpteenth thing I’ve written about Google’s Gears technology, which enables offline use of Web-based services. It’s also quite possibly the last time I’ll ever mention it.

As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler noticed over the weekend, Google is officially saying that it makes more sense to focus on giving the upcoming HTML5 spec Gears-like capabilities than to continue with Gears itself. It plans no new features for the plug-in, and is ending support for the OS Snow Leopard version altogether. The moves end any remaining chances Gears had of becoming a big deal.

When Gears was announced almost three years ago, I was positively giddy over its possibilities. But the story of Gears turned out to be one of a nifty idea that never lived up to its potential.

What happened? Back in 2007, I assumed that Gears would get robust support in an array of Google services, inspiring other developers to follow Google’s lead. But the company never quite hopped all the way onto its own bandwagon: The offline version of Gmail is pretty impressive, but Google didn’t build a completely Gears-enabled version of Google Docs, useful though one would have been.

Google never worked that hard to sell Gears to users and developers, either. The Gears site does a lousy job of explaining why you’d want to install the plug-in (“Let web applications interact naturally with your desktop…”). As far I can tell, it never attempted to keep track of Gears-enabled services, short though that list would have been. The official blog had a grand total of one post in 2009. Even now, after Google has said that Gears is dead on the Mac and in near-limbo on Windows, the “What is the status of Gears?” section of the official FAQ talks about it being a beta that will lead to a final release.

At this point, Google’s shift to HTML5 makes sense. But by the time HTML5 offline features are a reality in every major browser, we may not need them much. Between EVDO, Wi-Fi, and in-flight Internet access, it’s now rare for me to sit in front of a computer that isn’t connected to the Internet. (I’m still disconnected on some domestic flights, all international flights, and chunks of visits outside the U.S. when I’m too cheap to pay for pricey wireless access–but ask me again in 2012 or so.)

Bottom line: Gears was a great idea in 2007, but it was always one with an expiration date. Its highest-potential years are already over.

The rest of this post is a sort of wake for Gears, in the form of extracts from most of the stuff I wrote about the technology–for PC World, Slate, and Technologizer. Note that my tone shifts from excitement to caution to quiet despair…

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Offline Gmail Leaves Labs…But Doesn’t Arrive in Snow Leopard

(UPDATE: Google says it’s figured out how to make Gears work in Firefox within Snow Leopard.)

Gmail’s extremely useful offline access feature has graduated from Labs and is now “a regular part of Gmail.” Users of Google’s mail service can now read, compose, and manage mail even when they don’t have a working Internet connection. Well, many folks can–but not Mac users who are running the current version of Apple’s operating system, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Offline Gmail depends on Google’s Gears framework, and Gears doesn’t work in Snow Leopard.

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Goodbye, Gears (Sniff!)

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.

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The Ongoing Unfulfilled Promise of Gears

Gears LogoI persist in believing that we don’t know enough about Google’s Chrome OS to either love the idea or hate it. But this I know: If Chrome OS netbooks only work when they’ve got an active Internet connection, they’ll make no sense at all. The day may come when Internet access is available everywhere and everywhere. But for now, computers need to provide some level of functionality even when they’re cut off from the Net.

I’m assuming that Google wouldn’t dispute that and is building a Chrome OS that will work offline in one fashion or another. Which got me thinking about a Google project that’s both one of my favorites and a major disappointment: Gears.

When Google announced in 2007 that it was developing a framework to help Web services run even when the Web wasn’t available, my PC World pals and I got so excited that we named Gears as the year’s most innovative product. Then another few months passed, and I got worried that the Web wasn’t jumping on the Gears bandwagon as quickly as I’d hoped it would.

Gears is now more than two years old, and the list of services that support it remains remarkably short. Actually, I’m not sure if there is an official list of Gears-friendly services: Google’s Gears site refers to a “select group” of services, but doesn’t mention them. In this case, “select” is presumably a synonym for “short.”  The Wikipedia page for Gears mentions fifteen Gears-enabled services, six of which are from Google itself. For the most part, they don’t replicate all their Web functionality within an offline browser–even Gmail, which may have the neatest Gears implementation to date, offers a reduced set of features.

Making Web services work sans Web is, clearly, really hard. Even for a company with as many smart people and resources as Google (and Gears is an open-source project, so it’s not even limited by the amount of attention Google is able to devote to it). I’m still a Gears fan, and I’m still hopeful that Gears will turn out to be a late bloomer rather than a cool idea that never caught on. For now, though, it’s proof that Web technologies still benefit mightily from having access to the Web.

As far as I know, Google hasn’t said what role Gears plays in Chrome OS. It’s a safe bet that it’s part of the OS, and that Gears-enabled services will work on Chrome OS netbooks. But does it provide Chrome OS with its only offline features? We just don’t know. Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, so it’s also entirely possible that it’ll have some level of support for Linux apps. Any guesses?


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