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…