Google brings offline access to Docs and Apps

Google is rolling out a much-awaited feature for its hosted applications: the ability for people to use them even when they aren't connected to the Internet.

The first application to get this offline access will be the word processor, said Ken Norton, Google Docs product manager. "The design goal is to create a seamless experience, with or without an Internet connection," he said.

Over the next three weeks or so, Google will turn on the feature for all word processor users, giving them the ability to view and edit documents while offline. During the same time period, Google Docs' spreadsheet will gain offline ability for viewing, but not editing, documents.

Google Docs' third component, an application to make slide presentations, will remain for now without offline access. However, Google has plans to extend the offline access to it and to other hosted services in the Google Apps suite, of which Docs is part. Apps also includes Gmail, Calendar, Talk and others.

"Offline access of [hosted] apps is the next step in making the Web as a whole a lot more reliable," Norton said.

Expectation for offline access in Docs and Apps had been building since Google introduced its Gears open-source technology in May last year. Until now, Google had only built Gears offline functionality for its Reader RSS feed manager.

By allowing Docs and Apps users to work offline, Google is addressing one of the biggest objections to Web-hosted applications. So far, offline access has required that users export their Docs files to third-party file formats, like Microsoft Office.

Google Docs, a free software suite available to anyone with a Google account, is aimed primarily at consumers, while Google Apps, designed mainly for workplace use, has been adopted mostly by small organizations.

However, Google has lofty aspirations that Apps -- with Docs in tow -- will extend its reach into medium-size and large companies, and to that end has been boosting its security and administration features, particularly in its fee-based Premier version.

Offline access to documents is "one of the big things they need to be competitive in the enterprise. It's a critical step in gaining that appeal," said Rebecca Wettemann, a Nucleus Research analyst.

As Google extends offline access to more of its applications and services, it should help organizations understand how this capability can be useful in the real world, Wettemann said. It's important that the introduction of offline access doesn't remain in the realm of a cool novelty, she said.

"Google should take the opportunity to talk about what are the best practices and use cases in which this approach makes sense and delivers greater value than traditional desktop applications," Wettemann said.

With Docs and Apps, Google is pushing a conceptual shift in productivity and collaboration software that so far has been at odds with Microsoft's. Google's view is that software should be hosted by the vendor in order to reduce the customers' cost and the complexity of installing and maintaining it.

Google and other hosted-software proponents also point out that their applications make it easier for users to share documents and collaborate on them, because the files are hosted on a central server and not locked in users' PCs.

Microsoft has been criticized for being slow to adapt its software for this Web-hosted model. However, the company lately has been taking steps to recover lost ground with an approach that tries to mix the best of both worlds, with enhancements to Office Live Workspace, which is still in beta, or test, mode. Along the way, Microsoft wants to make sure it retains the dominance it has had in the office productivity market with its ubiquitous Office suite.

Gears is a browser plug-in that can store files and data locally, as well as run JavaScript applications without a server connection. It's this architecture that will allow Docs users to work on their word processing documents if their Internet connection drops or if they're somewhere without one, like on an airplane.

To access their Docs files offline, users need only install the Gears plug-in and type in the regular Google Docs URL: docs.google.com.

Work done offline will be automatically synchronized with the Google Docs servers when users connect to the Internet.

As an open-source technology, Gears can be used by developers outside of Google.

The offline access will be turned on "in batches" over the coming weeks in consumer Docs accounts and in the administrator consoles of Apps.

Gears is currently supported in Internet Explorer 6 and above and Firefox 1.5 and above for Windows XP and Vista, according to Google. Firefox 1.5 and above is also supported on Mac OS X 10.2 and above and Linux. Gears also runs on Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 and above in Internet Explorer 4.01 and above.

Google isn't the only provider of productivity and collaboration software to provide offline access for its applications. Players in this market like Zoho and Yahoo's Zimbra also have offline capabilities in their suites.

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