Google has released a new version of Gmail that operates without an internet connection, and it plans to offer similar offline versions of Google Docs and Google Calendar over the coming week. But these tools will only work in tandem with Google's own Chrome browser.
The company had promised offline versions of its Google Apps by the end of the summer, saying they would compliment Chrome OS, the Google OS that puts all applications inside the browser. But this is the first indication that these apps would only work with Chrome.
Based on Google's Gmail web app for tablets, the new Gmail Offline must be "installed" from the company's Chrome Web Store, its marketplace for web applications and Chrome extensions. This adds an icon to Chrome's "new tab" page, and after clicking on this icon, you can continue using Gmail while offline. The app is due to arrive in the Chrome Web Store today.
Gmail Offline is built atop various HTML web standards – including AppCache, local storage, and the FileSystem API – but it also uses technologies only available with Chrome, including a "background pages" tool that keeps your email up-to-date when Gmail isn't open. Another tool works to increase the amount of storage available to offline web apps.
"We needed a combination of advanced HMTL5 capabilities...as well as ways to address use cases not yet covered by existing standards," a Google spokeswoman tells us. "The exact offline functionality that we wanted to build required ways to address use cases not yet covered by existing standards. Long term, we expect that other browsers will support these capabilities and we look forward to making our apps available offline for them as well."
The spokeswoman could not say whether these technologies have been proposed as web standards, but she indicated Google will work to push these tools into other browsers. "As with many features that we build into Chrome, we work with the WebKit open source project quite closely and hope to help contribute to the overall advancement of the web ecosystem," she said.
Google says that offline versions of Google Docs and Google Calendar will be "rolling out over the next week", beginning today. These too will require installation through the Chrome Web Store and will only work with Chrome. The new offline version of Google Docs will not let you edit documents offline – only view them. But the company says offline editing is in the works. Google previously offered an offline version of Google Docs, but this was based on the now defunct Google Gears.
Google discontinued the Gears version of offline Docs last year, vowing to move its offline tools onto web standards. And it has – but only up to a point. Google believes in a world where all applications run inside the browser using standard technologies, but in order to reach such a place, the scope of today's web standards must be significantly expanded, and Google isn't willing to wait for these standards to evolve at their traditionally slow pace.
Google's basic philosophy is to adopt standards where it can, but also to build additional technologies around the standards and actually put these technologies into play before they're standardized themselves. Such technologies include everything from an API that gives developers insights into the operation of background browser tabs to an application layer protocol that speeds ordinary http to a sandbox designed to run native code inside a browser.
In some cases, simply by flipping the switch on a new technology, the company can encourage its use across other parts of the web. With Chrome now controlling a good 13 per cent of the browser market, Google has more leverage than ever. And with a successful web application like Gmail, the effect works the other way as well. Gmail Offline can drive further adoption of Chrome.
The trouble is that the web technologies Google pushes may not be the technologies the rest of the web wants – Native Client being a prime example – and at least in the short term, we're given applications that run on some browsers but not others.
Offline versions of Google Apps are particularly important to the company's strategy because they dovetail with laptops running Chrome OS, an operating system where the Chrome browser is essentially the only local application. You can't use a Chromebook when you don't have an internet connection unless your web apps operate offline. ®