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Use Web apps offline with Google Gears

Although the offline-browsing technology is currently available only for a small number of sites, Gears can keep you working--sort of--when your Internet connection fails.

My laptop's wireless 3G connection has been crapping out for over a week now. It works for a while, and then it quits. I don't know why. I don't know when it will be fixed, if ever.

I only know that when I'm on the road, I've got no way to get work done. While I wrestle with AT&T's alleged support services, I'm stuck in the breakdown lane of the old info highway.

I need access to Gmail and a half-dozen other sites, but for now I'll have to settle for stale Google Reader news feeds and my Google Docs files, plus a handful of other Web apps. These are the only sites I can access offline via Google Gears, a technology that lets Gears-enabled Web sites store information on your hard drive. That way, you can use the services even when your Internet link has gone south. Or at least that's the idea. In reality, you're still out of touch.

At present, Gears works with with Google Docs but not Spreadsheets or Presentations. You can view your Google Reader feeds offline, but you can't get to your Gmail in-box or Google Calendar. Other sites that are said to support Gears are the WordPress blogging system, ZohoWriter word processor, and Remember the Milk info manager.

I tried Gears with both Google Docs and Google Reader. The first time you visit Google Docs after you install Gears, you see a link labeled Offline in the top-right corner of the screen. Click it to open the Gears warning. After you allow the service to store information on your PC, the sync begins.

Google Gears warning
The first time you activate Google Reader's offline mode, you're asked to give the service permission to store files on your PC. Google

The initial sync can take a few minutes, but the process is faster subsequently. The green check mark in the top-right of the Google Docs window indicates that you're online. Click it and then click Settings to view your offline options.

The top button in the resulting dialog box simply puts a shortcut on your desktop. The second button lets you disable the offline feature. There are also two links in the dialog: the top link opens a simple information page, while the bottom link displays technical information about the sync, including the files you've downloaded.

Google Docs settings for offline browsing
Google Docs lets you access online files without a network link via the Google Gears technology. Google

You'll find more information about using Gears for offline access at the Google Docs help site. Note that even though Google Spreadsheets is said not to work with Gears, my online spreadsheets were downloaded just the same.

Google Reader's offline feature works a little differently. After you install Gears, you'll see a green arrow icon in the top-right corner of the Reader window. The downward arrow indicates that you're online. Click it to see a pop-up asking for permission to download data.

After you click Allow, the items in your feeds will be downloaded to your PC. The green downward arrow becomes a blue upward arrow, which means you're in Reader's offline mode. Click the arrow icon again to return to online mode.

It's nice to be able to access online files and news feeds without an Internet link, but what I really need is ubiquitous network access, which is what I thought I was getting with my 3G data link. Wireless data services simply aren't reliable, and offline browsing is no substitute for real-time access to e-mail and Web sites.

Maybe someday Google's new patent will be able to improve the situation. Or maybe WiMax will finally be ready for prime time.

All I know is, what we have now just won't do.