It's time for Google Docs to work offline

Google's online office suite shows promise--as long as you're online. To be competitive, it needs to work when there's no network connection, too.

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.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Google is betting on a future with ubiquitous, affordable, wireless, high-speed Internet access. That may be smart in the long run, but last week that philosophy drove me straight back into the arms of Microsoft.

My technology choices generally come down to pragmatic rather than religious choices, and it was pragmatism that led me to embrace Google Docs last year. I like the fact that I can work simultaneously on multiple computers--indeed, even on mobile phones these days--and that multiple people can easily collaborate. My requirements for advanced formatting and formulas are low enough that I generally can put up with the shortcomings.

Here's what I don't like, though: for Google Docs, you need a network connection.

I just spent five days at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, Spain. Contrary to what one might hope for a show devoted to the latest in mobile communications, the wireless networking at the show generally ranged somewhere from crippled to crushed.

Android phones, iPhones, and iPads now can be used to edit Google Docs word processing documents.
Android phones, iPhones, and iPads can be used to edit Google Docs word processing documents. Google

For reasons that baffle me, network giant Cisco Systems sponsored the show's Wi-Fi, with signage in the halls touting it and attendees receiving a flier explaining how to use it. I'd have thought that Cisco, a company with a brand to promote and protect, would have learned by now to steer clear of tech trade shows in which auditoriums filled with Net-enabled gadgets bring wireless networks to their knees.

I was eventually hobbled with a Vodafone 3G dongle plugged into my computer's USB port, but that only works some of the time (it was too bulky to use the dongle and the other USB port at the same time, for example). And of course the data plan is expensive, I had to unplug it much of the time, and connecting to the network is slow.

Under these circumstances, was I going to rely on a word processor that needed a network connection? Not a chance.

Thus, it was back to Microsoft Word for me during the show.

I recognize that these trade show circumstances might be a little extreme when it comes to network failings, but there have been plenty of times driving around my previous home in California and my present one in England in which the network doesn't work for me. Taking the train into London, a classic commuter scenario if there ever was one, is one example.

Google had tried to enable offline Google Docs in years past using its now-discontinued Gears plug-in. That didn't work for me for a number of reasons: First, I use a Mac when traveling, and Gears broke with the release of Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard. Second--and maybe this was some kind of user error--I just found it awkward.

I wasn't alone. The relatively low usage of the feature probably minimized the pain when Google announced last year it was temporarily ditching the offline feature in a Google Docs overhaul that I otherwise like for new abilities.

"We need to temporarily remove offline support for Docs starting May 3rd, 2010. We know that this is an important feature for some of you, and we are working hard to bring a new and improved HTML5-based offline option back to Google Docs," said product manager Anil Sabharwal in a blog post at the time.

How long will we have to wait? In December, Google promised that offline Google Docs will return "early in 2011." An eighth of the way into the new year, I'm looking at my clock, and Google isn't commenting on any particulars at this stage.

What's the holdup? First, I suspect, is browser support for a new standard called IndexedDB, aka Indexed Database. A general consensus backing IndexedDB only emerged a year ago, and browser support is only arriving now..

Aside from the browser issues, Google has some re-engineering to do as well. The earlier offline technique used a different offline storage technique in Gears very similar to a browser technology called Web SQL Database. But facing Mozilla and Microsoft opposition, Web SQL lost out to IndexedDB.

In a perfect world, offline Google Docs would be an invisible, unnoticeable step away from online Docs. That means first and foremost that I'd be able to edit a document without an Internet connection, of course, with changes being synced with the online incarnation once a Net connection was re-established. But it would mean more than that. I also should be able to create new documents, search my archive, and perform file-management tasks such as adding a document to a collection.

Those features are among the most basic actions one takes for granted in the Microsoft Office world. Although Google Docs shows promise, without those features, it's profoundly broken until that perfect network arrives.