Google’s plug-in has a slight head start on two other promising products that, while very different, also aim to take Web services offline: Adobe’s AIR and Mozilla’s Firefox 3 (which will be the first browser to sport built-in features for the purpose). All three packages are welcome news for anyone who’d like to use Web services when the Internet is down, but their significance goes way beyond that. The modern age of Web services began on April 1, 2004, when Google unveiled Gmail, the first Webmail client that was better than most desktop ones. It’s no hype to say that May 30, 2007, the day of Gears’ debut, could be equally momentous.
Without offline functionality, after all, a Web suite (like Google Apps or Zoho) could never replace Microsoft Office. With offline functionality, future Web suites just might. Would you shell out $500 for Office 2010 Pro if Google Apps were roughly comparable, available online and offline, and completely free? Probably not. That’s why Office will surely leave its desktop roots behind for the Web at some point in the not-too-distant future.
The influence of Gears and similar programs might even seep into hardware design. A potent Core 2 Duo PC with a couple of gigabytes of RAM and a humongous hard disk is pricey overkill for anyone who mostly works in the browser. Many pundits have mocked Palm’s upcoming Foleo, a $500 subnotebooklike gadget that packs just enough hardware oomph to run Linux, some basic office programs, and a Web browser. But it could be a precursor of a class of browser-in-a-book devices that provide all the oomph you need to run IE, Safari, or Firefox.
Typically for Google, its spin on Gears is altruistic—the company stresses that it’s an open-source product that it hopes many services will embrace. That it’s also a way to mess with Microsoft’s head may be purely coincidental. But if Google isn’t working furiously to bring offline capabilities to everything from Gmail to Google Spreadsheets, I’d be flabbergasted.