Google gives glimpse of future Gears goodies

Google demonstrates Gears features that let a Web browser upload files more gracefully, alert users of important events, and process information about the user's location.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--Google showed off working prototypes Wednesday of new possibilities for its Gears project to goose Web browsers' abilities.

When Google launched Gears a year ago, the company overemphasized one important feature, its ability to make Web applications work even when the browser is disconnected from the Internet, Chris Prince, a lead Gears engineer, said in a talk at the Google I/O conference here Wednesday. The new features, though, head in dramatically different directions: notifications on the desktop of various events, support for location information, better interactions with a computer's file system, and technology to let large file uploads proceed even when hampered by intermittent network connectivity.

Chris Prince, a Google engineer, describes new possibilities for Google's Gears software to improve Web browsers.
Chris Prince, a Google engineer, describes new possibilities for Google's Gears software to improve Web browsers. Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

At the same time Google is working on the open-source Gears project, competitor Yahoo has begun similar efforts, announcing its BrowserPlus effort this week. The moves show that the Internet giants are trying to steer the basic fabric of the Internet into more lively directions.

"I think people have realized the browser is kind of broken," Prince said in an interview after his talk. "A lot of us are trying to improve it."

The project initially was called Google Gears, but the search giant removed its name Wednesday in an effort to show it's not just the company's work. MySpace announced it's using Gears for its mail system at the show.

Prince wouldn't commit to any of the new features ever making their way into Gears, but it's clear the company has grand ambitions for what can be done with web applications. "We want to make it so Web applications can be just as powerful as desktop applications by unlocking the capability of the local machine," Prince said.

He demonstrated five Gears prototypes:

• One let a Web page create a shortcut icon on a computer's desktop so people could launch that Web application with a double-click instead of a more laborious process.

• A notification process, which like Yahoo's BrowserPlus feature ties into a computer's general system notification abilities, is a major missing piece in letting Web applications seize a user's attention the way desktop apps can. "Web apps have this problem where they can't tell users about important things happening on their system," Prince said.

• His file system demonstration showed a dialog box that let him select a large group of photos for upload rather than the one-file-at-a-time process that today afflicts Web site operations.

• A "blob"-processing ability could be used, for example, to divide a large file into bite-sized pieces, an approach that makes it easier to restore an upload interrupted by a bad network connection.

• He used a geolocation-processing ability to process latitude-longitude information to provide a more useful Google map showing bars near Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Gears still needs to handle privacy, though, when it comes to sharing location information with Web sites, he added. "There has to be permission for using location data. We haven't figured out the best model yet," Prince said.

And though he didn't demonstrate anything, Prince also said there's work under way to try to build Webcam and microphone support into Gears.