Google Gears for ‘offline’ battle with Microsoft


All in a day’s work

Yesterday was a propitious day for Google.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company launched its open source browser plug in – Google Gears – the same day it hosted its first ever International Developer Day at 10 locations globally, with more than 5,000 attendees.

A coincidence? I think not.

But what can the Internet Search/online advertising behemoth possibly gain by so assiduously wooing the developer community?

At least three things, it seems:

For one, there’s speculation Google may be seeking alternate revenue streams.

“Google is keen to spread its revenue base and reduce dependence on online advertising, and clearly these developer days are one way of working toward that,” said Kate Worlock, an analyst at Outsell Inc., a Burlingame, Calif.-based market research company that monitors Google’s activities.

The growth of the online advertising market is slowing somewhat, and Google recognizes this.

Google’s revenue for Q1 of 2006 was US$2.25 billion (Can$2.38 billion), up 38 per cent from the same period in 2005.

However, by Q4, the year-on-year growth rate for overall search advertising accounted for 40 per cent of U.S. ad revenue, a slight decline from 41 per cent in the previous year, according to figures published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

When the IAB publishes new numbers for the first quarter of 2007 later this month, it’s possible we’ll see further evidence of a slowing market.

Secondly, the event gives Google access to some valuable feedback and market intelligence. Interacting with thousands of developers globally provides an incredible opportunity for the company to get a sense from the developer community where it should focus limited support resources.

Finally, given that Google lives on the Web, it directly benefits when third parties build software and services using its development tools and application programming interfaces (APIs).

So whether it’s new applications that link to its location-based offerings, such as Google Maps, Google Earth and SketchUp, or creating mash-ups with AJAX and Google Gadgets, or developing with the Google Web toolkit – Google is happy when third parties create a broad range of Google-friendly apps and services online.

And offline as well…

Taking it offline

Google Gears, also rolled out on Thursday, represents Google’s first serious initiative to support offline development.

Google Gears is an open source browser extension that lets developers create Web applications that can run offline. (What Google announced yesterday, though, was an early-access developers’ release, not yet intended for use in production).

Gears includes three modules installed on a user’s computer:

A local server – to cache and serve application resources (such as HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc.)

A SQL Lite style database – to store and access data from within the browser

A worker pool of processes – that perform long-running tasks in the background. This allows you – for instance – to synchronize data with the network (once you get online again), without locking up the application

While Gears is targeted at developers, it has facets that might pique the interest of end users as well, according to Bret Taylor, group product manager for Google’s developer products.

One of these facets, he says, is Google Reader, which supports offline functionality with Google Gears.

“You can click a little icon and it will download the latest posts from your blog roll; you can read it offline and tag things. When you go back online, it synchronizes that with the server.”

Taylor said the Google developer team created several iterations to figure out the right set of APIs that would make applications work well offline.

He said developers would write apps like they’re running locally. “[They] write against a local database, running completely on the user’s computer. When there’s an Internet connection it synchronizes with the network; when there’s no connection it doesn’t synchronize, but the application will continue to work.”

Google’s goal extends far beyond supporting developers in their offline endeavours, however.

Through Gears, it actually seeks to create the industry standard for offline development.

As Taylor, put it in a video interview on the Scobleizer blog: “We want to make this thing into a standard with other browser vendors.”

And Google has a good shot at succeeding.

For while there’ve been other attempts to make Web browser applications work when one is not connected to the Net, none have stuck. Up until now, there hasn’t been an across-the-board, generic way to do it with Java script tools.

Google Gears against Microsoft

The Gears announcement follows on the heels of Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s Apollo initiatives – both of which are attempting to establish a standard for working offline.

There’s speculation that Gears by promoting the widespread adoption Google Docs, the company’s suite of productivity apps, would pose a threat to Microsoft’s Office software business.

Docs – which includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs – currently only works with a live Internet connection.

If its operation is enabled offline on a user’s hard drive, would that bring Google Docs into direct competition with the dominant Microsoft Office brand?

Let’s wait and see.

The goods on Gears

Downloaded from:

Browser compatibility

Google Gears works on the following browsers:

* Apple Mac OS X (10.2 or higher) – Firefox 1.5 or higher

* Linux – Firefox 1.5 or higher

• Microsoft Windows (XP or higher) – Firefox 1.5 or higher; Internet Explorer 6 or higher

Additionally, the team is working on supporting Safari on Mac OS X in a future release.

Ways to use Gears

Basically two:

– By embedding the API or runtime software in an application you distribute to end users

– By writing a Web application that makes use of installations of Gears on end-users’ computers.

With files from Peter Sayer, Computerworld


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