Web Apps

Google Lets Gmailers Cut the Cord

Google has officially taken Gmail offline. No, the search giant has not put the kibosh on the popular e-mail service; it’s added offline functionality, the company announced Tuesday.

While Web-based e-mail services that are accessible from any computer with a Web connection and a browser are convenient, the applications are sometimes hindered by their Internet tether, Google said. Unless users are at a WiFi hotspot or using a smartphone over a snappy network, accessing Web-based email can be a challenge.

The new offline Gmail functionality is an experimental feature in Gmail Labs. Once they add the feature to their Gmail accounts, users will be able to use parts of the Web-based e-mail service offline.

“It should be no surprise to anyone that Google felt compelled to develop an offline version of Gmail. The entire world isn’t wired, and for businesses and consumers, they want to work offline sometimes,” Matthew Caine, an analyst at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

Gearing Up Gmail Offline

To bring Gmail to the offline world, Google uses Gears, a set of programming tools designed to enable Web developers to create offline versions of Web-based applications. Gears downloads a local cache of a user’s e-mail. While a subscriber is connected to the network, the cache is synchronized with Gmail’s servers.

When the connection is lost, Gmail will automatically switch into offline mode using the data previously stored on the computer’s hard drive rather than data sent across the network. That way, users can continue to use the application.

They can read messages, star and label them, and do many of the same things they are accustomed to doing while using their webmail online, according to Google. Any messages that are sent while the application is offline are placed in the user’s outbox and sent automatically when Gmail detects an Internet connection.

For users who are “borrowing” their Internet connection from a neighbor or just have a slow or unreliable connection, there is a so-called flaky connection mode. It uses the local cache as if the user is disconnected, but still synchronizes e-mail with the server in the background. The goal, Google said, is to provide nearly the same browser-based Gmail experience regardless of whether a user is using the data cached on the computer or talking directly to Gmail’s server.

Google cautions users that while the company has been using Offline Gmail internally for a while, it is still considered an experimental feature. It will be available in the U.S. and the UK over the next few days.

“You could use a POP or IMAC client on the back end, but what’s interesting is that this is an in-browser client and requires very little fuss and bother to set up. It has the potential to bring [Gmail] to the masses offline,” Caine said.

“It’s a slightly different paradigm — you’re still working in the browser and that architecture, plus the ease of installation will make it attractive compared to the old paradigm of finding Thunderbird and setting it up,” he added.

Playing With the Big Boys

Adding offline functionality for Gmail is a significant milestone, noted Christopher Voce, a Forrester Research analyst.

“When you take a look at the needs of businesses and its constituents, e-mail is a complex part of their organization tied to a lot of other parts. It shares dependencies with some of the supporting services like filtering, archiving and disaster recovery or template e-mails,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Businesses start to see how cloud e-mail helps them, Voce continued.

“How do their employees use e-mail? Do they need to be archived; understand the applications tied in and dependencies and costs of running e-mail? What are the real costs of running the e-mail on-premise or hand it over to Google?

“A lot of users require offline access. Until the addition of the offline feature, Google was pretty much a non-starter for enterprises. This is the beginning. It’s still a beta or alpha feature with a lot of bugs, but it is an example of a cloud service chipping away at the limitations of a cloud solution. It’s not a quite business-ready solution, but it’s a start,” he pointed out.

To hang with its competitors — Microsoft and Lotus, more so than Zimbra and Zoho, all of which have had offline functionality for a while — the key is to make Gmail more of an enterprise-friendly solution, Voce stated.

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