Image Gallery: Google Reader's offline capability gypped of key Google Gears cog

Image Gallery: Google Reader's offline capability gypped of key Google Gears cog

Summary: It's been a couple of weeks since Google announced Google Gears -- a technology that makes it possible for Web applications to continue functioning even in the absence of a network connection. Given how Google has open sourced its implementation of the technology, it stands a pretty good chance of becoming the defacto standard for offline-enabling other Web apps from Salesforce.

TOPICS: Google

stopinternet.pngIt's been a couple of weeks since Google announced Google Gears -- a technology that makes it possible for Web applications to continue functioning even in the absence of a network connection. Given how Google has open sourced its implementation of the technology, it stands a pretty good chance of becoming the defacto standard for offline-enabling other Web apps from to Wordpress. The reason it could become such a standard is simple: Google's backing.

Prior to the arrival of Google Gears, there were other approaches to the same problem. One of them involved a Java-based database that's referred to as the Derby Project by the Apache Foundation (at Sun, it's called JavaDB). But neither the Apache Foundation nor Sun saw the need to drive Derby/JavaDB into the market as a solution to the so-called offline problem. Francois Orsini, a talented engineer at Sun, saw the potential for JavaDB to take Web apps offline and proved it with some self-built prototypes. But unless Sun still has something up its sleeve, it's clear from the way Orsini was pretty much a lone ranger that solving the offline problem for Web apps was not one of Sun Microsystems' priorities.

It was for Google. While other solutions exist, none have the backing of a Google-sized titan. That, in combination with Google's open sourcing of the technology will likely drive its adoption by other Web app developers. It doesn't hurt that Gears also has the backing of the Mozilla Foundation, Opera, and Adobe as well: three key players in the Internet application space.

Unfortunately, despite how cool Google made Gears sound, Google has so far only enabled one of its applications for it and, in my opinion, not the Goolge one that could benefit from such a technology most (based on the number of users that use it): GMail. Instead, Google picked its Web-based RSS client (Google Reader, aka "Reader") for the honor. This week, in an effort to finally experience Gears' offline capabilities, I gave a Gears-enabled version of Reader a test drive and capture every step of the process in a ZDNet image gallery.

It's important to realize that both Gears and Reader are classified by Google as beta-level services. In other words, Google foesn't consider either to be based on "shipping code" (if there is such a thing when you're talking about Web-based services where code never actually ships to anyone). On the other hand, "beta" is in the eyes of the beholder. More than three years after its initial release, Google still classifies GMail as beta too. Anyway, as beta services, pretty much anything I have to say or show about Gears or Reader is subject to change.

gearsinstalled.pngIt's important to know that, as a Web-based application, Google Reader is not, by default, enabled for Gears-based offline usage. Enabling Reader for Gears requires two software components on the local system (see FireFox's extension dialog and Windows Add/Remove Programs dialog, right). One is a browser extension (shown top in image). The other is a locally installed software component (bottom); a browser plug-in. While I'm sure there are other solutions to other problems that also use this extension/local-app architecture, it's the first time I've seen anything of this nature and just as interesting is how Google installs the browser extension and downloads the installer for the local application (the plug-in) as a result of just one click on one of Reader's Web pages (users of Reader will notice a new link in the top right-hand corner that says "Offline"; it leads you to the installation process).

During the installation/download process, Google pops up a dialog that tells you that you'll need to shut all your browser Windows down before the local installer can be run (at least, this is what happened when I did it for Firefox on Windows). If your browser is configured to run executable files from the Net, then you'll be able to run the local installer when your browser's download dialog pops up. For my own security peace of mind, I always manually download installer scripts and run them from my hard drive instead.

This is the point in the process, at least in my experience, where Gears is a bit clunky. Once I ran GoogleGearsSetup.exe (the installer for Gears), I restarted FireFox and logged into Google Reader. After getting a security warning that a Web site (Google Reader in this case) wanted to use Google Gears and clicking OK (during the installation, Google warns you to only let sites you trust work with Gears), I looked for something different. Anything. But there were no visual cues to indicate that something had changed. In some ways, based on a description of Gears that Google director of engineering Linus Upson explained to me during a recent podcast interview, this is what I expected. According to Upson, Gears makes it so the end-user doesn't need to know or care whether their computer is on or offline.

Theoretically, the user can always work with the "offine version" of a Web app. If the background synchronization technology that Google also open sourced as a part of the Gears announcement is properly leveraged, then the offline version should remain in synch with the online version so long as an Internet connection is present. The idea is that if the Internet connection drops, then the user simply has whatever the latest version was of their applications (Web page code) and data at the moment before the connection was lost.

So, when I first noticed the absence of any visual queues regarding Gears or any offine capabilities, I thought to myself "This is slicker than I thought it would be. It must be transparently synching in the background and I'm simply looking at the offline version right now." To prove my theory correct, I yanked the Ethernet cable out of the side of my notebook and pressed FireFox's refresh button. The result? My theory was wrong. I got a couple of graphics (ones that were obviously cached in my system). But the rest of the page didn't load. Thinking that maybe it needs more time for the first-time synchronization, I plugged the Ethernet cable back in, left a FireFox tab open on Google's Reader page and left it there for a while. After a few hours went by, I went back to that FireFox tab, unplugged the network cable again. But I got the same results as before: nothing.

Figuring something had gone terribly wrong with the installation (and "Hey, it's beta!"), I contacted Google to find out if there was something I was missing. Perhaps some visual cue that I was overlooking. The better part of a day went by after which I finally ended up on the phone with a Google spokesperson who asked "You don't see anything?" While on the phone with her and fully prepared to say "No, but maybe I'm looking in the wrong place?," I went back to that FireFox tab, and it was as if a Google God magically reached into my system while I was on the phone with the spokesperson and popped up a dialog box that had, up until hat point, not shown it's face. It said:

To use Google Reader in offline mode, click the icon above

readerofflineicon.pngAbove the text was a tiny green icon (see image, left) with a down-facing arrow (as in "synch down"). My expectation at this point was that by clicking the icon, it would flip Reader into the offline mode as Google's Upson had described Gears'capability to me (where the synching process was transparent to me as the user). But, as it turns out, that's not how it works. Instead, the link is more like a toggle. When I clicked it, it synched the last 2000 RSS items (with suprising speed) and flipped me into an offline mode for which there was no background synching even though I was still connected to the Net. In other words, it wasn't displaying any of the RSS items that arrived since moving into Readers' offline mode. Clicking the icon again put me back into the online mode in which case, I saw the newer items. But for those items to be synched with Reader's offline mode, I had to click the synch icon again. In other words, even though Gears is capable of transparent background synching, Google's only showcase for the technology (Reader) doesn't take advantage of that feature.

For me, it was not only a surprise (I really expected Google to showcase all that Gears was capable of), it was sort of a bummer. After all, who wants to manually synch? Imagine if RIM's BlackBerries required manual synch before BlackBerry users could get their new e-mail? Yikes.

I asked Google whether I was doing something wrong, or if Reader was working as advertised. According to Google Reader software engineer Chris Wetherell, it was simply a developer election not to use the background synch option. Via e-mail, he told me:

The Google Reader team chose to make the offline sync manual because it was an easier development option for us at the time, and we couldn't wait to get this feature out to users. Our primary goal with Reader is to make consuming feeds more convenient for users, and we think giving them access to their feeds offline is a big step in that direction. We are always looking for user feedback as we explore options to improve Reader and automatic offline sync-up is certainly one of them.

The Google Gears API does not preclude either of the two options for offline synchronization and the choice is made by individual application developers depending on their specific needs, goals for their application, etc.

It's hard to know exactly why the tech had to be rushed to market before it fully showcased all of Gears capability. I took that comment to mean that automatic offline synch is on Google's to-do list for Reader. Hopefully, that will be sometime soon since manual synching is kind of a drag.

Topic: Google

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  • Just FYI...

    ...some people consider the word "Gyp" or "Gypped" to be a racial slur. My wife has some sort of Gypsy ancestry and I've had to train myself not to use that word.
    tic swayback
    • Indeed

      True, I'm no fan of PC, and not personally offended by this, but I'm surprised to see this in a headline.
      • Not a common connection

        Most people I know don't use gypped as a reference to being cheated by a gypsy but just as being cheated. There's no mental connection between the word gypped and gypsies; it's just regarded as a synonym for cheated.
        • Not common, still offensive

          I know what you're saying, it came as a surprise to me when it was first mentioned to me as well. I know it's not an intentional slur, but it is an offensive word nonetheless.

          Would David get grief if he talked about a good deal he got on a computer using the headline, "I totally Jewed down Dell"? It's not meant as a slur...
          tic swayback
          • Re: Headline

            I have to say, that until the past year or so, I not only didn't know it was offensive, I didn't know how it was spelled (I always thought it was jipped), much less that it had a thing to do with Gypsies.

            As for "jewing" one down, I've never understood why that's offensive. The only way I've ever heard the word used is to state that one is excessively good at haggling. One thing I'm certain of if after buying a car, I overheard the salesman telling that to another salesman, I might get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. At least, I wouldn't feel like I got ripped off for a change. And surely that'd give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside :D
          • It's a stereotype

            It's offensive because it portrays one group of people in a negative light (cheap and stingy).
            tic swayback
    • Message has been deleted.

      • I second that

        It all comes down to intent. If you aren't using a word maliciously, then there's no problem.
        • I totally Jewed down my local car dealer

          Hey, I wasn't using the phrase "to Jew someone down" maliciously, I meant it as a good thing, talking about good bargaining skills. And when I said that blacks had excellent rhythm and that they love fried chicken and watermelon, I meant those things as positives.

          No problem, right?
          tic swayback
          • WRONG USAGE.

            It would be mooe correct to say "This car dealer jewed me"

            The phrase (still common BTW, and for the record, it IS a racist phrase, but the word GYP is NOT a racist word, and is still VERY common, anyone who says it is NOT spends more time on the internet than in the real world) - He "jewed" me is a nazi-ish RACIST remark ALWAYS MADE by the so-called "Victim" of such "jewry"

            In other words, YOU would never say: "I jewed this guy" - You would just say that you made a killing or something.

            The guy you GYPPED however, would Probably say that either you are of Hebrew origin, or that you basically GYPPED him. Then he would come after you, like I would do.
          • This Article is a GYP!

            Basically, Google makes these little POS programs like Gooler Earth and such, SOMEBODY makes use ot them, but most of them are a GYP. I use GMAIL and GMAIL is NOT a GYP.

            Once I bought software from Microsoft and it was a compleat GYP. I got GYPPED by CROOKS at Microsoft who charge TOO MUCH MONEY for stuff that should be reasonly priced.

            But the Biggest GYP of all is that Microsoft is paying out billions in gratuities and cash to people who BLOG, just to tell us HOW GOOD VISTA is and HOW GOOD HOTMAIL IS and WHY WE SHOULD WORK LIKE DOGS ALL WEEK and at the end, give MS our MONEY.

            But it is a GYP- Because MOST advanced computer Makers and Users sincerely believe that Not only is Vista a GYP, they also believe that MS itself got Gypped with this new antigoogle smear campaign - they are really rolling out the dough, but they are getting Gypped... Because in the world I live in, EVERYONE uses GOOGLE stuff, and NONE of the similar MS stuff. Cos we all believe it is a GYP.

            Anyone here PAY for Vista? YOU GOT GYPPED!
        • Really?!?

          Personally, I understand there was no malicious intent by the author, nor am I offended in the least by the headline.

          But you *REALLY* think that as long as someone uses a word with no malicious intent, there's "no problem"? The list of examples I could come up with that woule change your mind would get me banned from posting here ever again...

          Your statement doesn't hold up in the least.
      • You don't know my wife

        ---and tell your wife to get over it---

        With an attitude like that, I'm sure you and your right hand get along just fine.
        tic swayback

  • another FYI: Oracle Lite

    Oracle Lite has been available for years - guess what it does? Let's you use web applications on and offline, has a local database and does synchronization.
  • David, I am really surprised at your choice of titles

    Or do you subscribe to the notion that all Gypsies are fair game for epithets and stereotyping still? Really, you could have done a lot better.
    Confused by religion
    • I am really surprised as your assumption.

      It's very possible and in all odds probably the case here that there was no connection between gypped and gypsies when he wrote the headline. Even looking it up in Merriam-Webster ( brings up no reference to gypsies and simply says "cheat".
      • Don't be surprised

        It doesn't take much of an idiot to get offended.
      • You need better sources

        From the Oxford English Dictionary
        perh short for GIPSY

        Interesting piece on it here:
        It?s often said that to gyp derives from gypsy, and it seems highly probable. However, direct evidence is lacking, and the term arose in the US, where gypsies have been less common than in Europe. Gypsies don?t call themselves that, by the way, but Roma, from their word Rom, a man. The verb only began to appear in print near the end of the nineteenth century and took some time to become well known (it?s not in the 1913 edition of the Webster Unabridged Dictionary, for example).

        The confusion you mention may lie with another sense of the noun, for a college servant at the University of Cambridge (the English one). Though gyp in this sense is also sometimes said to come from gypsy, it may equally well come from the obsolete gippo, a menial kitchen servant; this once meant a man?s short tunic, from the obsolete French jupeau. (Gyppo, as a modern derogatory term, does seem to come from gypsy, or at least, from the same source as to gyp.)

        Even if the verb does come from gypsy, most people who use it probably don?t link the two ideas. It?s a connection that has become stronger as we have become more sensitive to possible racial slurs, as a result of which the possibility of offence is treated more seriously than evidence of actual offence warrants. (Much the same process has happened with squaw).
        tic swayback
        • OK here is one

          I am white....yeah right and I am just supposed to take it, not say anything against it when someone of another color tells me that I am white, but if I call someone black or colored then it's ok for them to be offended, how come? I mean whats the difference between calling someone a white or or black?