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Google's next offline apps: Presentations, Spreadsheet

The company wants people to stop thinking its Web-based apps are susceptible to flaky networks. Also: Docs experiments with Dart and Native Client.

Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Apps, speaking at Google I/O.
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Apps, speaking at Google I/O. Stephen Shankland/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Adding offline editing abilities to Google Docs may sound like a modest, incremental change, but it's actually a major step ahead for the company's Web-based services.

And those services will take two more steps soon: Offline editing is coming to the Presentations and Spreadsheet apps, too.

"You'll see that coming out before long," Alan Warren, senior director for Google Docs and Drive, said in an interview at the Google I/O show here. Both of the apps will allow users to read and edit files offline, he added, with editing abilities coming "pretty close" after reading abilities launch.

Offline access is important because Google Docs comes with a big red flag: will it work when the network dies or you're disconnected? Without that assurance, a Web app will forever lag a native app in a very important way.

"We want to get people thinking Web apps are just as immune to network flakiness as native apps," Warren said.

And that's a big deal as Google tries to convince customers to pay for Google Apps, its suite of online apps that costs $50 per year per employee. Many organizations sign up for Gmail and Google Calendar, which work offline using mobile phones, but Google doubtless wants more people using word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, too.

Google Presentations, which uses a lot of the same technology as Google Docs, will be the first to get offline support, he said. Google Spreadsheets will take longer, because Google is reworking the back-end software -- the part of the app that runs on Google's servers.

The revamp is required because Google is making Google Spreadsheets better able to handle big spreadsheets with lots of rows, columns, and data, he said.

"We're going to relaunch our back end so we can scale spreadsheet sizes," Warren said.

Redoing the front end -- the downloadable Web app that runs in the browser -- must wait. "It's a bigger thing," he said. In contrast, "The Presentations machinery is built on the Docs stack. It's going to be much, much quicker."

Google had some offline support in years past using its now-discontinued browser plug-in called Gears. This time, Google used Web standards including AppCache and IndexedDB.

"We tried with Gears, but we didn't really bite the bullet to restructure the front end of the application," Warren said. Just trying to glue on a few patches to the existing project wasn't enough.

There are future possibilities for Google Docs, too. The company is considering rewriting parts of the apps with Native Client and Dart. The first is geared to let downloadable C and C++ programs, lightly modified, run fast and without security risks in a browser. The second is a new programming language Google hopes will be faster than JavaScript, in which Google Docs is written today.

For example, a spreadsheet with 10,000 rows would be just too slow if written in today's JavaScript, he said. But with Native Client, Google could run software at a faster, lower level closer to the computer hardware, he said.

Despite the explorations, it's not clear what path the company will take. Native Client and Dart are Google-only for now, with some other browser makers actively opposed. And though Google sees faster app performance would be a nice incentive to draw people to Chrome, it's difficult to create different versions of the same technology designed to run on the supposedly universal programming foundation that the Web provides.

"You need to have enough bang for the buck to make it worthwhile," Warren said.