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Google Gears, for offline use, rocks

by Philip Sellers

There was a time when I was the first on the block to try everything new that came out.  Those times have long since past and family and other priorities have taken over.  But this weekend, I was able to try Google Gears and finally understood the value of the service.  Over the years, I’ve become a big believer in many of Google’s services.  They are my primary search in all my browsers, I’m loyal to my GMail (more on that), and I’ve embraced Google Docs, much to the point that I don’t even have Microsoft Office installed on any of my Macs anymore.  I must confess, though, that I do have iWork installed, though, for some of the more creative things – like family newsletters.

When Google Gears first appeared, I asked myself, why’d anybody want that?  What does it buy you?  See, I can’t imagine the world without Internet – its always close by for me, but not everyone is that way.  I can’t say I really understood fully until this weekend.  My wife and I have been discussing building a house and so all our spreadsheets with potential scenarios are in Google Docs, so we can share (talk about its killer feature, right?).  Well, sharing is great, but we hadn’t had time to talk about some of the scenarios I’d put together.  See, I am the geeky numbers one in the family and my wife confessed she really didn’t understand what she was looking at…  So, we had an hour’s car ride Saturday while traveling to go see the circus with our daughter.  Enter Gears.  

I enabled Gears in Firefox on the Mac, let it download my documents (which it did quickly…)  and off we went.  With no Internet connection anywhere in sight, we were able to pull up and make changes to the spreadsheets that were created online and really use them as if we had internet backing it the entire trip.  It was great.  And, on top of that, when we were back online, the changes sync’d and all was online too.  Very very cool.  

What Google has managed to do is really create a wonderful Microsoft Works replacement online.  Granted, its not as full featured as Office, but its got more than enough features for the everyday home user.  And the ability to take it offline (for someone on dial-up — like my parents) or someone traveling, is huge.  And think of this, the update to the latest, greatest isn’t a $49.99 or $199.99 CD away, its a quick internet connection away.  The download is much faster than any comparable ‘compiled’ software package. 

But I also mentioned Gmail, right?  Several years ago, I left a not-to-be-named ISP which resembles a Loony Tunes character to become a company man, subscribing to my new employer’s internet service.   My biggest pain was switching my primary email which I’d used for many many years over to a new account.  I chose GMail.  I had had my GMail account for a while at this point and it was sitting there pretty idle.  It was cool and it was Google, but it didn’t get much use.  That changed.  I switched all my online accounts over and slowly but surely, it became my primary personal account. 

Up until about last November, I kept Apple Mail as my primary email client.  I left it open at home and used GMail’s wonderful IMAP implementation to keep my two mailboxes sync’d.  But, there were times that Apple Mail didn’t play nice and messages might still be showing new at home that I’d ready earlier in the day at work.  So, I slowly stopped opening Mail, because it’d gotten too painful to wait for the initial sync when I got home.  Instead, I’ve found myself relying on GMail’s excellent web interface for everything.

I’ve gotten GMail setup to check my other POP accounts, bring those in and label them accordingly.  I can send “from” them as well, which is nice.  And really, GMail’s web interface is as strong as a desktop app at this point, and there are tons of features that a desktop app doesn’t have – including chat, tasks, SMS from chat, Twitter via the TwitterGadget, etc.  

So, I’ve enabled Google Gears and offline access for Gmail at home too.  I think its a much better solution for my laptop and for the times when Internet isn’t right there with me.   I’m interested to try this over my s-l-o-w EDGE data plan and see how well the sync works now that Gmail doesn’t need to download the entire Javascript application.  I’m looking forward to my next time traveling.

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