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Google shows off Gmail mobile Web app

The search giant, illustrating its belief in the Web, shows off a prototype of a Web-based Gmail application that runs on both an iPhone and Android phone.

Google's HTML 5-based Web version of Gmail shown on an Android phone
Google's HTML 5-based Web version of Gmail shown on an Android phone
Stephen Shankland/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--What Google did with Gmail in conventional browsers five years ago it is expecting to do again with a new mobile version of its Web-based e-mail service.

Vic Gundotra, who leads Google's mobile software and developer relations efforts, showed off the Web application "technical prototype" Friday in an onstage interview here at the Web 2.0 Expo. Google offers Gmail applications that run natively on BlackBerry and Android mobile phones, but the company clearly has high hopes for a Web-based version as well.

Building a Web interface means Google can reach more phones more easily, Gundotra said, as phone browsers get more sophisticated and their Internet connectivity gets better. "Imagine if you could build apps that ran across all these phones," Gundotra said.

As he did in a similar demonstration in February, Gundotra showed a version running on an iPhone and on a phone using Google's Android operating system--apparently the HTC Magic.

The software relied on features in HTML 5, the still-under-development version of the technology that underpins Web site design. Specifically, it used offline data access so the application could read e-mail even while there was no Internet connection.

"When we make it broadly available, people are going to see this as the first HTML 5 mobile application," Gundotra said, declining to say when it would become available. "It'll be like Gmail in 2004. It was a great watershed moment for Ajax apps," which employ JavaScript for relatively sophisticated browser-based interfaces.

Vic Gundotra, head of Google's mobile sofware and developer work, speaking at Web 2.0 Expo.
Vic Gundotra, head of Google's mobile sofware and developer work, speaking at Web 2.0 Expo. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The mobile Gmail application also featured a floating toolbar that stayed perched at the top of the inbox, offering constant access to delete and archive buttons and a menu of further options.

Mobile is central to Google's work. The company already offers a search application for the iPhone and some other models that lets people issue queries by speaking rather than just typing. The accuracy of the speech recognition has improved 15 percent in the last quarter, Gundotra said, and usage of the service is growing fast.

Gundotra previously worked at Microsoft, but it was a few words from his then 4-year-old daughter that led him to Google. He'd told a friend he didn't know the answer to a question, and his daughter, overhearing, asked him, "Daddy, where's your phone?"

"In her brief four years of life, she assumed any time you didn't know the answer to a question, you brought out your phone. For her the phone was the ultimate answering machine," something that answered questions. That helped him realize that Google's mission of organizing the world's information and presenting it to people would happen in mobile phones, too.

Google likes HTML 5, but it'll take time for it to become adopted broadly. In the meantime, other alternatives exist for richer Internet applications, notably Adobe Systems' Flash. Also up and coming are a browserless relative of Flash from Adobe called AIR and a Flash rival from Microsoft called Silverlight.

Gmail for iPhone Web app demo
Google showed off a better browser version of Gmail on the iPhone. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Asked about AIR, Gundotra said, "I think Adobe has got some great products," mentioning Google's use of Flash to power video streaming at YouTube. "There's also Silverlight from Microsoft. I am biased toward open Web standards," Gundotra said.

And he touted another HTML 5 feature: "I predict we will see video tag become broadly adopted," a technology that could enable video streaming without a Flash player, similar to the way Web browsers can show graphics without requiring separate plug-ins.

Gundotra also had words of praise for Google App Engine, a year-old service that can be used to run Web-based applications. One such application hosted on Google App Engine is Google Moderator, which lets people submit questions and rank which ones they want to hear answered. Moderator originated as a way for Google employees to ask questions of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin during weekly employee meetings, Gundotra said.

Google was excited but scared when the White House said it planned to use Google Moderator for an online town hall meeting with President Barack Obama, Gundotra said.

But it held up under the load, and "the 45,000 other apps (on Google App Engine) were totally unaffected by this much scale," Gundotra said.

The town hall moderator system handled nearly 700 queries per second at its peak, with 3.6 million people voting on the questions they wanted to hear answered, he said.

Traffic spiked at Google Moderator when the White House used it to handle questions.
Traffic spiked at Google Moderator when the White House used it to handle questions. Stephen Shankland/CNET