Offline Google Docs starts playing peek-a-boo

The offline version of Google's productivity suite has been spotted outside Google's firewall. With Chromebooks now launched, time is of the essence.

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
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One of the big criticisms of Google's Chromebooks is that they're significantly less useful when you don't have an Internet connection or are paying by the megabyte for a wireless data plan. That drawback is particularly glaring when it comes to Google Docs.

And unfortunately for Google, the company missed the Chrome OS launch window with one important upgrade coming to Google Docs, the ability to use the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software while not connected to the Net.

Offline Google Docs was slated to arrive early this year, but Google pushed it back. In May, Google promised offline Google Docs this summer and said it's testing the feature internally.

And apparently, it's not just internal: the unofficial Google Operating System blog reported a case in which a reader saw a black status bar at the top of the browser window with the label "Offline Docs," the alert "network connection lost," and apparent links for "switch to online mode" and "switch to offline mode."

I use Google Docs a lot and am both impressed and disappointed.

On Friday, I collaborated with several other writers collectively writing a single document--and we even used Google Docs' chat abilities when Yahoo Messenger's chat room faltered. Right now, I can see words I'm writing on my Mac appearing across the room on my Windows machine--a silly curiosity were it not for the fact that I need to use multiple computers. I've looked up needed information on Google Docs with my smartphone. The power of building the network into Google Docs is truly impressive.

But Google Docs' offline shortcomings afflict me me whenever I'm on a train going into London, vacationing in Cornwall, suffering a DSL outage at home, avoiding exorbitant data roaming fees abroad, or working at a tech conference with overwhelmed Wi-Fi.

The W3C's new HTML5 logo
The W3C's new HTML5 logo W3C

Unlike Googlers, I'm not equipped with unlimited data plans. During these moments of unconnectedness, I crack open Microsoft Office again and afterward deal with the annoyance of mirroring the files back into my online archive.

So I for one would like to see offline Google Docs arrive as soon as possible--and offline Gmail, Calendar, and anything else in the Google Apps service, while we're at it.

In a Reddit discussion last week, Google Docs product manager Jeff Harris blamed the significant technical challenge of the task for the delays.

You're going to see offline start to roll out later this summer. We used to have offline with Google Gears, but it became pretty clear that plugins weren't the right approach. We've been reimplementing offline using HTML5 standards like AppCache, File API, and IndexDB [aka IndexedDB].

We're some of the first webapps that are really putting those standards to the test, so it's taken a while to iron out the kinks.

It should be noted that one of those offline technologies, IndexedDB, is still in somewhat early days of the standardization process and hasn't necessarily won over all the browser makers. Don't be surprised therefore if only early fans such as Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome support offline Docs.

The Gears approach to offline Google Docs provided the feature earlier but with significant limits. For example, spreadsheets couldn't be edited offline.

Technical challenges arise when offline Docs go online again, particularly when multiple people are editing the same document, Harris said.

We will launch in whatever incremental pieces make sense. But the long-term direction is if you access a Doc URL while offline, it should open the local copy of the doc and let you edit. When you go online all your edits get synced in the background. You should also be able to see a list of your docs while offline.

We'll need to work through all the tricky problems with how to merge conflicting edits. It's fun stuff.

I for one would welcome the incremental piece of only enabling read and write privileges with documents of which I am the sole owner.

After all, it's not just me waiting for offline Docs now. I imagine the Chrome OS team is paying very close attention as well.