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Google Docs getting offline access

No connection? No problem: Google Docs will soon work anyway.

Google Docs' word processor is finally getting offline access. Using the free Google Gears extension, users will soon be able to read and edit their files even when they have no Internet connection.

The Gears-enabled version of Google Docs will roll out to users over the next few weeks, starting Monday. If you don't have access to the feature, just keep trying, Google Docs product manager Ken Norton told me. You'll know you have the feature when you see a little "offline" menu item in the upper right of your document window in Google Docs.

Offline access for Google's spreadsheet and presentation app will follow after the word processor rollout is complete, Norton said, and will be read-only to start.

Google Docs will not, at first, let users create new documents while offline. The feature's first-use case is, "I'm amending a document and I lose my Internet connection," Norton said. Document creation capability will come eventually.

Of course, users will not be able to collaborate in real time when offline, or see if other users are simultaneously modifying a document they are editing in offline mode. Google Docs will "do its best" to reconcile changes made by multiple users when one or more are offline, Norton said. If there are conflicting edits, a dialog box will pop up when an offline editor comes back online.

Offline access is a necessary feature to make Google's productivity suite a competitor to Microsoft Office. However Google Docs' feature set, while improving over time, still falls far short of the functionality available in the Microsoft suite.

The only other Google application to use Google Gears currently is the RSS reader, Google Reader. A few other apps use Google Gears, such as Remember The Milk.

Mozilla maintains that HTML 5, which includes specifications for offline access to interactive Web sites, will obviate the need for Google Gears. That's not likely to stop people from trying the new offline version of Docs. Norton reminded me that Gears is open source, and that it is "the only way to bring offline support to the entire Web audience as a whole."

Gears does indeed run on more platforms than HTML 5 today, however it still doesn't cover every Web platform: Google Gears runs on Firefox 1.6 and above (but not beta 3) on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It also supports Internet Explorer 6.0 and higher on Windows. There is no support for Safari, Flock, Opera, Maxthon, or mobile browsers.

We'll have a hands-on review shortly.

Here's a demo by Google's Ken Norton: