Gears of War

The new Google product that could augur the death of Microsoft.

A week ago, I ceremoniously yanked out my MacBook’s Ethernet cable and toggled off the Wi-Fi. Once I was positive the machine was cut off from the Internet, I added a task to my online to-do list. It worked. I sat back and smiled, agog—I had just seen the future of software.

I wrangle my to-dos with a Web service called Remember the Milk. Compared with a bloated behemoth like Outlook, it’s a streamlined, fun-to-use wonder. Rather than sitting on one PC’s hard disk, RTM lives on the Web, where it’s available on every computer I use. Up until that day, though, it had the same overwhelming problem as every other Net-based service on the planet: It was … well, Net-based. No Internet connection, no to-do list.

But now Remember the Milk has added support for Google Gears, a new browser plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer that helps developers disconnect their wares from the Web. I click an offline icon, and RTM temporarily stores my to-dos on my PC and uses bits of Javascript code stored locally to let me add, delete, and edit tasks. I can add items to my list while on a plane or in a car. Once I’m online again, it syncs everything back to the Web. It’s a neat, simple, and practical way to take advantage of the Net even when the Net’s not around.

Google’s plug-in has a slight head start on two other promising products that, while very different, also aim to take Web services offline: Adobe’s AIR and Mozilla’s Firefox 3 (which will be the first browser to sport built-in features for the purpose). All three packages are welcome news for anyone who’d like to use Web services when the Internet is down, but their significance goes way beyond that. The modern age of Web services began on April 1, 2004, when Google unveiled Gmail, the first Webmail client that was better than most desktop ones. It’s no hype to say that May 30, 2007, the day of Gears’ debut, could be equally momentous.

Without offline functionality, after all, a Web suite (like Google Apps or Zoho) could never replace Microsoft Office. With offline functionality, future Web suites just might. Would you shell out $500 for Office 2010 Pro if Google Apps were roughly comparable, available online and offline, and completely free? Probably not. That’s why Office will surely leave its desktop roots behind for the Web at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Office isn’t the only Microsoft hegemony that Google Gears could help destroy. One of the defining differences between Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux is the application lineup. That’s given the crew in Redmond, Wash., tremendous power: It’s not purely happenstance that Mac users wait longer for new versions of Office and never get some programs, such as Outlook and Access. But technologies like Gears render the operating system largely irrelevant. Remember the Milk couldn’t care less whether it’s running in Internet Explorer on Windows or in Firefox on a Mac. Neither could I, since it’s exactly the same useful service on both platforms. If productivity applications migrate to the browser, you could choose whatever OS you pleased—your apps would work anywhere and everywhere.

The influence of Gears and similar programs might even seep into hardware design. A potent Core 2 Duo PC with a couple of gigabytes of RAM and a humongous hard disk is pricey overkill for anyone who mostly works in the browser. Many pundits have mocked Palm’s upcoming Foleo, a $500 subnotebooklike gadget that packs just enough hardware oomph to run Linux, some basic office programs, and a Web browser. But it could be a precursor of a class of browser-in-a-book devices that provide all the oomph you need to run IE, Safari, or Firefox.

OK, maybe I’m waxing overly enthusiastic. Before any of these scenarios can happen, these offline services have lots of growing up to do. Remember the Milk is one of only a handful of offline-enabled Web apps; almost all of them are extremely rough drafts. If you try to delete a task in RTM’s offline mode, for instance, there’s no way to undo your action, as you can when online. Whole swaths of the service, like its address book, aren’t available offline.

Then there’s Google Reader, the sole Google service that’s currently Gears-enabled. It’ll download your RSS feeds so you can peruse them without a Net connection. Which is dandy unless any of your feeds are of the sort that only give you a headline, a snippet of text, and a link back to the Web. (Like Slate’s feeds, to pick a random example.) Click on one of those links when you’re disconnected, and your browser won’t be able to find the page.

Given time, the developers behind RTM and Google Reader should be able to re-create more of the services’ goodness in offline mode. Realistically, though, you can’t completely decouple a great Web-based application from the Web. Flickr is Flickr because it contains petabytes of photos by millions of photographers; Netvibes is Netvibes because it’s constantly grabbing content from other sites. Net-less versions of these services would have to downsize their ambitions. Even so, if there were an offline edition of Flickr that, say, allowed me to manage only the pictures on my home network, I’d grab it in a heartbeat.

Long term, of course, cheap, pervasive, reliable broadband would make technologies like Gears superfluous. That day will come; considering the long list of places where I can’t even dependably make a voice call, though, I don’t think it’s arriving all that soon. So, right now, there’s unquestionably a need for this stuff. If nothing else, it’ll be entertaining to see how old-line software purveyors react. Typically for Google, its spin on Gears is altruistic—the company stresses that it’s an open-source product that it hopes many services will embrace. That it’s also a way to mess with Microsoft’s head may be purely coincidental. But if Google isn’t working furiously to bring offline capabilities to everything from Gmail to Google Spreadsheets, I’d be flabbergasted. And bummed out. As a guy who endures more than his share of six-hour plane flights, I can’t wait until I can use all my favorite Web services sans Web.