The biggest pain with Webmail is that it’s so … online.
Right, sure, we’re all constantly connected these days, what with WiFi in all the cafés, smartphones in absolutely everyone’s pockets and not a single person working in a job that doesn’t involve eight straight hours of Internet-connected computing.
Sometimes our Internet service goes out. Sometimes the darn wireless on the computer refuses to work properly. Sometimes you’re camping with a bunch of hippies in Vermont but want the option to retreat temporarily from the joint-passing and go play a computer game in your car. And shoot, while you’re there, read some old e-mails.
And now, with Gmail’s offline mode, you can. You can even read things you’ve saved in Google Docs and Calendar.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that you could use just any browser for offline synchronization. Where’s the world domination in that? To really take advantage of the feature, you need to use Google’s own Chrome.
Chrome is more than just a browser. It masquerades as its own operating system with installable apps, especially on Google’s ChromeBook laptops. The Chrome OS is really an overlay for a Linux kernel.
That makes Chrome more like a runtime, a software layer that can in turn run other software. Microsoft’s .NET is a runtime, as is Java. Programs requiring those runtimes might tell you that upon install and offer a way to conveniently download what you need, or they might just list in their system requirements that you have to install something else first.
For offline Gmail and Google Docs, you have to use Chrome and install specific Chrome apps. If you’re a regular user of that browser, you’re probably familiar with its trying to push Angry Birds at you every time you start up. The more productive apps are available from the Web Store, also accessible from Chrome’s home screen. Just search for Offline Google Mail, Google Docs and Google Calendar.
I know what you’re thinking. How can you send e-mail when you’re not connected to the Internet? Well, you can’t, really, but you can access all your existing mail and queue up messages to be sent out the next time you have an active connection. It’s essentially the same as the mail clients of yore that would download all your messages to your local machine. Offline Google Mail does the same thing, synchronizing everything in your online mailbox to a local cache on every computer you use.
Docs and Calendar work the same way. They’re stored in Google’s cloud, but every time you access them, they’re synchronized with your machine. For now, you can only view documents and appointments, but soon you’ll be able to make edits. Just like a pending e-mail, the offline changes will sync back to your offline account when you connect, as long as you do it from that same computer.
The price of this seamless offline access is the dissolution of Google Labs, a one-stop shop for all kinds of experimental software the company was working on. A product called Google Gears had previously taken care of offline synchronization. Other products will be similarly folded into existing services. It’s certainly not the end of experimentation for Google, but putting half-finished products out in front of the public might not happen so much anymore.
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