The Ongoing Unfulfilled Promise of Gears

By  |  Friday, July 17, 2009 at 12:17 pm

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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9 Comments For This Post

  1. ediedi Says:

    I’ve been using gmail as my main account for 4 years (and of course, google as my main search engine), and I’ve never heard of ‘gears’. That says a lot about its popularity…

  2. Stephen Turner Says:

    I don’t agree about the Linux apps. I think Chrome OS will boot into a full-screen Chrome browser that you can’t escape from. (You could still do some configuration of the computer with an embedded web server).

    I think it will have Gears, which will allow minimal offline email and docs. But Google really do live in a world where everyone is online all the time. And for a netbook, maybe that’s not a bad assumption.

  3. GR Says:

    Wasn’t Gears a bridge technology anyway for older browsers? It seems that HTML5 support for offline data storage and geo-location has largely obviated the need for it. Google has loudly proclaimed their strong support of HTML5 (See the Google Wave presentation for an example). I believe that Safari/Chrome/Firefox will, or already do, support the major features that Gears offered. IE is the laggard and perhaps Gears will exist only to provide IE users a bridge since MSFT doesn’t seem interested.


  4. David worthington Says:

    IE8 does supports parts of the unfinished HTML 5 spec.

  5. Steven Says:

    The reason people don’t know about gears in GMail is that its currently a lab feature :P.

    Anyways, I have a feeling that Google’s probably reimplementing Gears to take advantage of HTML 5.

    I don’t think we’ll end up with Linux apps. More likely, the Java libraries for Android will be ported over at some point to make Android apps compatible with Chrome OS. See, just having the Linux kernel isn’t good enough to run Linux applications. There are a lot of tools, largely from the GNU project, that wouldn’t be necessary for Chrome OS, but are needed by applications. There are lots of libraries that would need to be loaded to make even the most rudimentary of apps work. All of this would tax performance and boot time. Further, since Google is replacing X11 with a new windowing system, thats another source of incompatibility.

    The purpose of Chrome OS is to push web apps. So I can’t see them undoing that.

  6. Steve Holden Says:

    Another big issue is that Gears support for the latest Firefox is still not delivered. So, if you want to use the technology but you’ve upgraded you can’t. Also, it isn’t baked into Chrome yet, so it does making doing offline Cloud computing a non-starter.

  7. Mike Dunham Says:

    “Making Web services work sans Web is, clearly, really hard.”

    Bullshit. All you need is a locally running web server and you can run any web service you want. The bugaboo that requires connectivity is the data – if the data is not local, then you can’t work with your web service. If the data is local, then there is no reason you couldn’t use your “web service” without an internet connection.

    Note I’m not talking about something like a social network, or anything else that doesn’t make sense to use offline. Who would want to use Facebook without a web connection? But trying to use Zoho without being online – that kind of thing really shouldn’t be a problem.

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    I know that you can run a Web server locally–I do it myself. But the question of data is a big one, not a little one. And I have a hunch lots of folks would like to use Facebook–or some slice of Facebook–when they’re not connected.

    We can argue over terminology, but I wasn’t referring to Web services as being synonymous with running a local server–I meant ones that deal with getting data back and forth to the Web when they -do- have a connection. And do it all fast enough that it’s practical. (Running Zoho locally may be possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s feasible to expect that consumers will be able to download and run it.)


  9. Mike Dunham Says:

    I’ll concede that I’ve probably missed the point the first time around. My guess is that GoogLinux (I just made that up, send me a dollar every time you use it, please) will allow whatever apps most any other flavor of Linux would allow. So I’m picturing a netbook that can also run OpenOffice offline, for instance.

    I’m not sure why you’d need to run most web services offline, though. If you want to be able to use EverNote offline, then you shouldn’t be using EverNote – you should be using something like OneNote and then backing up your stuff. In other words, Google shouldn’t have to spend a ton of effort trying to figure out how to make third-party online products work offline, when it’s the user who made the decision to use a product that is not otherwise available offline in the first place.

    Hopefully that clarifies my position a bit.

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