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No shocker: Google prefers HTML5 to Gears

Google sees HTML5 as a more logical future for Web improvements than its own Gears software. No surprise, given its work on the standard and dislike for plug-ins.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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

Word from the LA Times is that Google plans to phase out its Gears plug-in in favor of HTML5 when it comes to augmenting browser abilities. The precise details of its enthusiasm for the plug-in aren't clear yet, but the general trajectory is no surprise.

Google, along with Mozilla, Opera, Apple, and some other allies, has been agitating for features that can make browsers and the Web into a more powerful foundation for Web sites and Web applications. Gears was an early Google effort in this area.

But Gears emerged in 2007--back before Google released a browser of its own, before the World Wide Web Consortium had put its full weight behind HTML5, before HTML5 had gotten the traction it now enjoys as an official standard in the making, and before Microsoft took interest in contributing to that standard.

It's clear things are different now, and HTML5 is solving the same problems Gears set out to fix, and a healthy cooperation is under way for future Web standards work.

Linus Upson, Google's engineering director for the Chrome browser and Chrome OS, confirmed Tuesday that Gears will be supported but isn't an active area of development.

"This isn't an area we've been investing a lot in the last year since we launched Chrome. We're very focused on making HTML5 as successful a standard as possible," Upson said. "Gears applications will run well for the foreseeable future," though, he added.

Browsers including Safari and Chrome are picking up HTML5 versions of Gears features now, he said, and Web applications will follow suit. "I would think over course of next year or so you'll see many more applications take advantage of those abilities," he said.

Perhaps the most notable Gears feature is the ability to store data on a PC so a Web application could work even when disconnected from the network--Gmail and Google Docs being the biggest examples. But that's solved by the local database work in HTML5 that's now arriving in browsers. HTML5 also provides for interfaces with files for better uploading geolocation to let a Web site make use of a person's location.

Various HTML5 elements are just beginning to arrive in Web browsers, and widely used browsers such as Internet Explorer 6 don't have any support at all. But the difficulties of getting people to install Gears or other plug-ins means that built-in browser support probably will reach more people sooner than Gears.

Google has given plenty of signals it's happy to direct Gears energy into HTML5. It proudly demonstrated offline Gmail using HTML5 storage last May at its Google I/O conference, for example. And regarding its O3D and Native Client plug-ins, which accelerate 3D and regular computing processes in a browser, Google developers have argued such technology should be built into the browser, not handled as a separate plug-in.

Google's official position, quoted in the LA Times, is as follows: "We are excited that much of the technology in Gears, including offline support and geolocation APIs, are being incorporated into the HTML5 spec as an open standard supported across browsers, and see that as the logical next step for developers looking to include these features in their Web sites...We're continuing to support Gears so that nothing breaks for sites that use it. But we expect developers to use HTML5 for these features moving forward as it's a standards-based approach that will be available across all browsers."

It was clear from talks at Google I/O that Google sees as a proving ground to try to advance Web technologies and counts it as a victory when Gears technology arrives in HTML5. Now the only real question in my mind is whether the pace of HTML5 development in the standards world will satisfy Google.

Upson said Google will continue adding features into Chrome and its Chrome OS, even if that means deviating from standards at times.

"Ideally for all these things (such as Native Client and O3D) we'd like to get them into standards," Upson said. "At the end of the day, we can't control the pace of the Internet Explorer developer team at Microsoft (or developer teams) at Mozilla and Apple. We all have a shared incentive to not fragment the Web, but there always will be seams that aren't smooth."

Updated at 5:14 p.m. PST with comment from Google.