Has Google Gears failed?

Google Gears logoIt’s not very often that you have to talk about a Google product in terms of failure but is Google Gears one of them? With internet connections, laptops and mobile devices now so ubiquitous, was there really any need for a Google plugin that would allow you to work offline. And with the offline versions of apps such as Google Reader and Google Docs so stripped-down, are they even worth using?

I remember when Google Gears was launched almost a year ago getting quite excited at the prospect of downloading all my Google Reader feeds and reading them at my own leisure when not connected to the internet. I wasn’t alone either – PC World named it the most innovative product of 2007. However, I soon realised that whenever I’m on my laptop, I’m virtually always connected to the internet wherever I am and via whatever means anyway – whether it’s my home connection, in an office, via a hotspot or dare I say it, somebody else’s open connection. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the general functionality – it became increasingly confusing to realise whether what I was reading in Google Reader was the online or offline version, the offline version was very basic and the synching process wasn’t half as fast or as automatic as I expected it to be.

However, what has really disappointed many users about Google Gears is simply how few applications support it a whole year after its initial release. At the time of writing, there are only a handful such as Google Reader, Zoho Writer and a pretty superficial attempt on Google Docs.

So what’s gone wrong here? Harry McCracken of PC World identifies one of the biggest problems – that using products offline is quite simply a significantly poorer experience than using them online. I mean, if a “proper” Web 2.0 application like Adobe Air is finding it tough, what hope does a tiny plugin like Google Gears have? McCracken says:

It’s clear that even with the advent of tools and platforms such as Gears and Adobe Air, moving online apps into the offline world is just plain hard. No current Gears-enabled app is anything like its full-blooded self in offline form – and since most of them are stripped-down compared to traditional desktop software even in their online versions, that means the offline ones are barebones at best.

However, is it maybe being unfair to rule out Google Gears merely a year after it was launched? Is it just simply a product that’s a little too ahead of it’s time at the moment and waiting for the technology to catch up? According to one forum commenter Chris Flemming:

I think perhaps it’s less of a flop than possibly ahead of its time. It’s possible that applications are waiting for application support to be built into the browser, for example Firefox 3 will provide this and it’s likely that the HTML5 standard will also include offline support. I personally use Google Reader for feed reading as none of the desktop clients supported my use model, where I require access from multiple clients; the ability to “go offline” and catch up on the train or when flying is very hand

One major problem that Google Gears will inevitably face though is the fact that it’s simply getting easier and easier to stay online all the time. With the European Union recently announcing that air passengers are allowed to use mobile phones on flights, surely internet connections will follow meaning that’s one less reason to be offline.

Does this spell the end for Google Gears or with Firefox 3 and other “offline friendly” innovations around the corner, or is this just the beginning?

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