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Google Gears takes Web apps offline, starting with Google Reader

Google releases a beta of Google Gears, an open-source plug-in for making Web applications work offline.

Google on Thursday at its Developer Day announced Google Gears, a browser plug-in that lets people run Web applications offline. The first application to use Google Gears is Google Reader, its Web-based RSS feed reading application.

The download for the Google Gears beta is quick--the files are less than 1MB in size. Once you have it installed, the Web application you're connecting to asks you whether you want to allow it to store data locally.

Here's a news story with more details, including the technology architecture of Google Gears.

Although it stayed away from making specific commitments, we can expect Google to bring this offline capability to Gmailand Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

Users can toggle between going on and offline in Google Reader by clicking the little green sync button. CNET Networks

Linus Upson, the engineering director at Google who briefed me on Google Gears, said that Google created the plug-in because its application customers were unhappy about not being able to work offline.

It's true that people for years have tried to make Web applications work in offline scenarios, the most oft-cited one being "when you're on a plane."

But it appears that Google Gears has the potential to become truly widespread.

Why? Well, it's Google. By doing the hard work of Ajax programming back in 2005 on Google Maps, they helped popularize Ajax by showing people what's possible.

Creating a generic method for taking Web applications offline is hard work, too, and they've taken a comprehensive approach while making it all just JavaScript APIs and thus, accessible to Ajax programmers. Assuming, of course, that it actually works.

Another benefit to Google's approach--which uses a local Web server and the open-source SQLite database for storage--is that it will let a Web application work when network connections are intermittent or a server gets bogged down.

Also, they're taking a pragmatic approach to getting the software accepted. It's an open-source plug-in so people can use it right away and they've partnered with the Mozilla Corporation and Adobe to make sure it meshes with their plans around Firefox and Apollo. (See ZDNet David Berlind's blog for more details on Adobe's plans to also use SQLite database on Apollo.)

We're now in a situation where there are a few plug-ins coming to the market, all of which offer something compelling--Adobe's Apollo for desktop Web applications, Microsoft's Silverlight for media-rich Web applications and now Google Gears.

In each case, whether they take off will hinge a lot on the content that's available for each format--and getting developers to commit.