Traveling through the French countryside at up to 186 mph, the Eurostar high-speed train service is a great place to put Google's new offline Gmail service (announcement, Techmeme) through its paces. Connection via a 3G card (there's no wifi on the train) is bound to be intermittent at best. But it works, says Dave Armstrong, head of marketing, Google Enterprise EMEA, who like 20,000 other Googlers has been testing the new feature for the past couple months.
Although the majority of the blogosphere comment this morning remarks that "finally" Gmail has an offline mode for disconnected working (albeit only in a Labs version for now), I'd say the delay is more than compensated by an innovation that Google's developers have named "Flaky connection mode", for those times when you're connected intermittently. That's the mode Armstrong was putting to the test on his recent Eurostar trip. In 'flaky' mode, the client connects when it can, but in the meantime the user keeps on working even when it can't.
Flaky mode works with whatever data the Gmail client has downloaded at the time. So if you find yourself unexpectedly disconnected without invoking offline mode, you can enter flaky mode and carry on while awaiting a reconnection. Of course you must already have enabled the offline capability, which downloads your historical data — you can decide how far back to go.
This solves a problem that to my mind is much bigger than totally disconnected working, as I outlined a couple of years back when discussing the topic of offline users:
"The key point at issue here is that intermittent disconnection is an inherent fact of life in a network environment, and that a truly robust on-demand application design will accommodate disconnection in a transparent and non-disruptive manner."
People talk about utility computing as if it automatically implies 'always on' networking. But if computing today really were only as pervasive as electricity, we'd be far worse off than we are with all our wireless access to live connectivity. Even so, we still need to cache that connectivity from time to time, just as we store electricity in a battery to tide us over until our next charge. This is what Google has achieved in its "flaky connection" mode.
"There's a very real need [for offline working] for those traveling on planes and trains," Armstrong admitted (not to mention conference rooms buried deep in hotel basements, I would add), as well as the "perceived need" for offline working inspired by comparison to desktop-bound email clients. "It's actually an expectation people have." Armstrong experiences that need more keenly than most Googlers since, apart from the occasional trip on Eurostar, Armstrong has also been using the new capabilities on his hour-long journey to and from work by commuter train every day — adding a valuable extra two hours a day for keeping his inbox clear.
The Gears-powered offline option is available as of today for both individual and Google Apps users of Gmail via the Labs tab — which means it's currently available only for users of the English language versions. Users on the paid Premier edition of Google Apps who want to use the offline capability will first need their administrator to switch on the Labs toggle — or if their company policy forbids switching on Labs, they'll have to continue to suffer until Google brings the capability into the full product (which, remember, is itself still in beta). The company is quoting no timescale for that to happen.
In a few weeks' time, Google Apps users will also have read-only offline access to their Google Calendars. Unlike the new Gmail modes, that new feature is bypassing Labs and will be rolled out as standard in all 48 languages.
The Labs designation gives Google's engineers time to collect user feedback and make sure they've ironed out all the tricky kinks in synchronization that may crop up — especially bearing in mind that many users access their mail from a mobile device as well as a laptop. As Webware's Stephen Shankland reports, there are a couple of annoying shortcomings, too. You can't add attachments while offline, and the contacts tab doesn't work, so you can't add new contacts (but autocomplete still works).
So the Labs team still has some work to do, but what it's achieved in enabling not only offline working but also intermittently connected working is a key step towards Google's objectives for the product, which Armstrong summed up in conclusion: "Our aim is to offline-enable the applications for the ways people want to use them, but without taking away that real-time collaboration in the cloud."