Saturday, June 2, 2007

Google Gears-- who needs it?

There's been a lot of hype around the concept of using various web apps while offline. I have to admit that I've been one of the naysayers. When I saw the announcement of Google Gears I mostly yawned:
One of the most frequently requested features for Google's web applications is the ability to use them offline. Unfortunately, today's web browsers lack some fundamental building blocks necessary to make offline web applications a reality. In other words, we found we needed to add a few new gears to the web machinery before we could get our apps to run offline. Gears is a browser extension that we hope -- with time and plenty of input and collaboration from outside of Google -- can make not just our applications but everyone's applications work offline.

I never use my computer offline. The last time was for about 15 minutes last February when I took some notes at a conference while they worked to fix the wireless access. So who is going to use this capability? I know about the digital divide and people who don't have access to broadband. Other than that? I've seen several people who have been saying that the need for offline access to web apps is huge. Ross Mayfield made it his top prediction for 2007:

Last time I can say I was right in saying 2006 would be the year of video. I think I scored well (not as well as YouTube, but you get the idea).

My 2007 Predictions, keeping it simple:

1. 2007 will be the year of offline web applications.

Personally, I fall into the camp that says if I'm not on the network I'm not on my computer. Simple as that. About the only place I don't have a network connection anymore is when I'm in the air, and I can't remember the last time I got out my computer on a plane. I don't think being able to use a web application offline is going to change anything. I'm totally with David Heinemeier Hansson on this-- You're not on a plane:

The idea of offline web applications is getting an undue amount of attention. Which is bizarre when you look at how availability of connectivity is ever increasing. EVDO cards, city-wide wifis, iPhones, Blackberry’s. There are so many ways to get online these days that the excitement for offline is truly puzzling. Until you consider the one place that is still largely an island of missing connectivity: The plane!

But planes are not a very common hang-out spot for most people. The two major groups of people who are on a plane often enough to care and have an interest in web applications are traveling salesmen and techies who go to too many conferences.

Beyond the digital divide issues, which I'm not discounting, who needs offline access? Personally, I'd rather see the digital divide addressed by solving the network problems, and not by unsatisfactory software-based work-arounds.

The only place I can see where these apps might be needed would be for privacy concerns-- when people don't want to store their information where it might be out of their control. Other than that I'm at a loss. What am I missing?


Krzysztof said...

You're missing the fact that local storage, when properly used, can speedup some web apps by reducing number of requests made to the server. That's a benefit for the user.

A benefit for the web app creator is that they can handle more users on the same hardware (again, thanks to reduced number of requests per user).

floyd said...

For me it helps to consider this question by putting it in the context of a "perfect" world. In a perfect world, I would be connected whenever I want to be and at speeds which support my application of choice.

Now ask the same question about "off-line" applications... is there a time, when I don't want to be connected?

My point? What is driving the development of off-line applications? If it is access and performance (aka,reality), then I hope this issue is short lived and I agree with Kevin - we are creating a work-around.

Or are there other advantages to off-line applications? I'm not sure I have an answer, most of my initial ideas would work just as well "connected".

5 years ago, I thought we would see more network-smart applications, not necessarily "web" applications. Of course, I still think that is the direction we are moving, it is just that the "web" has emerged as the common work environment.

Idan said...

I think you're making the typical mistake of generalizing from the private to the public. YOUR experience taught you offline web apps are unnecessary. THAT doesn't mean it's true for everyone. consider offsite locations where access is either unavailable or maybe costly. There are still many of those around globally, and it will remain so for some time.

Vishal said...

In developing countries like India, the internet is still not ubiquitous and cheap. Gears will surely be of use in such places. And another point is that Gears might be able to reduce traffic by caching the images/css/javascript etc and loading only data for offline enabled AJAX apps.

Tinus said...

You are missing two big things:

.1 CEO's don't want to depend on online applications, because it makes you very depended on your network connection. This softens the pain.
.2 Google is going to do CRM.

Greg said...

Plenty of "developing country" is left in the good ole USA too. Hard to believe I guess, since you're in a red state (ref election of 2004 --

I'm with "krzysztof" on this one. While there's the possibility that bandwidth will grow faster than its need, I doubt it. Never has before.

What I find most ironic is that we're making that cycle back to Dumb Terminals again...only this time the server is run by someone potentially around the world...whom we seem to trust more than we did the department within our own company 20 years ago.

Kevin Gamble said...

I fully understand the digital divide issues and am not arguing. I think my point refers more to people in the U.S. who talk about using these apps while you don't have the network -- temporary situations.

I never considered the idea that this could be used as a mechanism to disconnect people from the network; e.g. giving people access to only the applications they need and nothing more. Much cleaner than fire-walling sites perhaps. We should never under estimate people's desires to control others...

bendi said...

There's a serious consideration that hasn't been brought up here. Many large companies employ a small army of employees that spend a significant amount of time traveling. With Google's recent addition of free/ cheap business tools designed to rival Microsoft's expensive Office suite, they must offer an offline option for business travelers or companies won't invest in the products.

An executive that spends 18 hours on a flight from New York to Sydney without online access is much more likely to need Office, if even for just those 18 hours, which completely defeats the benefit of Google Apps.

Cecil said...

It seems the comments above summarize it well. As techies in high-tech cities with young techie friends, we rarely have to worry about being connected. But users in other situations will visit disconnected homes, or disconnected cities, or even disconnected countries, and I see this being very important to the technical professional (in India, for example). So Gears isn't for the mainstream as much as it is for the others.