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Offline Gmail access now a full-fledged feature

A key part of Google's promise for the Gmail Web application--the ability to read and compose messages while offline--becomes a standard feature.

After more than five years as a publicly available test version, Gmail shed its beta label in July. Now one feature key to the Net giant's cloud-computing aspirations, offline access to Gmail, also has grown up less than a year after its debut.

"Offline Gmail is graduating from Labs and becoming a regular part of Gmail," Google programmer Aaron Whyte announced the change Monday in a blog post.

Offline Gmail support, which relies on a Google browser plug-in called Gears, lets people read, search, organize, and compose e-mail even when there's no Net connection; sent messages are queued up in an outbox for delivery when the network access is restored and the account on the computer can resynchronize with the server.

"Offline Gmail has proven particularly useful for business and schools making the switch to Google Apps from traditional desktop mail clients--they're used to being able to access their mail whether or not they're online, and Offline Gmail brings this functionality right to the browser," Whyte said.

Google Apps, a bundle that includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and the Google Docs suite of online applications, is available for free for educational users or smaller organizations. Premiere accounts cost $50 per person per year, and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt called such Google has stopped developing Gears in favor HTML5's equivalent features. That overhaul of the standard for displaying Web page includes local data storage on a computer as one feature, and it's now enabled by default in Chrome even though HTML5 isn't a final standard yet.

Updated 1:45 p.m. PST and 5:46 p.m. PST: For some Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard users, Gears doesn't work, hampering use of Offline Gmail.

Google initially said Tuesday that Gears doesn't work on Snow Leopard but later amended its statement, narrowing the problem to Apple's Safari browser.

"It turns out that Gears does work on Firefox for Snow Leopard and Leopard, though it still doesn't work on Safari," Google spokesperson Victoria Katsarou said. "There was a bug that was preventing Gears from downloading on Snow Leopard, but we're fixing it and at we'll be updating our Help Center article and Download page to reflect the change."

She declined to comment on when or even if an HTML5-based version of offline Gmail might arrive.

Offline Gmail didn't even work Tuesday in the new Chrome for Mac beta version. Gears is built into Chrome, but trying to enable offline Gmail with the browser yields a "browser not supported" error message.

For the rest of you, here are Google's instructions for getting set up with offline Gmail:

1. Click the "Settings" link in the top-right corner of Gmail.

2. Click the "Offline" tab.

3. Select "Enable Offline Mail for this computer."

4. Click "Save Changes" and follow the directions from there.