Google Gears churns toward Microsoft

New Google software brings Web-based applications offline, positioning the company in what some say is direct competition with Microsoft.
Written by Elinor Mills, Contributor
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Google just accelerated its rivalry with Microsoft, though Google executives still deny there is a competition over who will dominate in an increasingly Web-based computing world.

The search giant--which has evolved into an advertising company and now an "apps" provider--released software late on Wednesday called Google Gears at its first official Developer Day held in 10 cities worldwide. Gears is a browser extension that will enable people to access their Web applications when working offline. It works on all major browsers and operating systems, and can be used by developers to make any application offline-enabled, not just Google programs.

Not only is Google strengthening its presence in the developer community, it is pleasing many different factions by releasing Gears as open-source software, rather than proprietary. Microsoft has been criticized for locking developers into its Windows operating system and other Microsoft software. Microsoft has also been struggling to figure out how best to respond to the threat that Web-hosted applications pose to its desktop business.

And for consumers and corporations, Google Gears knocks down a perceived barrier in competing with desktop applications. While users of Microsoft applications, such as the popular Office suite, can work in the software and access data stored on their computer at any time, Google's Web-based applications, such as Gmail, require a user to be connected to the Internet. That will change now that Gears has arrived.

Google Developer Day

"I don't think we think of Microsoft," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told reporters at the Google Developer Day. "It was a need we had...it sucks to not be able to work offline."

Jeff Huber, vice president of engineering at Google, dismissed the idea that the lack of offline capability had hindered adoption of Google Apps, which includes Web-based calendar, e-mail, chat, word processing and spreadsheet software. "We've seen tremendous interest and huge uptake of Google Apps," he said. An offline computing functionality was just a requested feature, he said.

Competing in the long term
Several Google watchers said the browser plug-in is a significant step in the evolution of Web-based applications, particularly with regard to the offline issue.

"Google Gears will address limitations with Web-based computing," said Greg Sterling, principal of consultancy Sterling Market Intelligence. "It positions (Google's applications unit) more squarely as a Microsoft competitor than before. You get the sense they are aggressively building a developer community around them, like Microsoft has."

Sterling said he doesn't think Gears will have any near-term impact on Microsoft Office market share, but it could shake things up in the long term, particularly because Google applications are free and Microsoft charges for its software.

"People like the collaboration aspect of Google Docs & Spreadsheets, but there's the belief that these applications aren't yet (feature-) rich enough to be substitutions for Office," he said.

"Gears ratchets the collar Google has around Microsoft's throat," said Stephen Arnold, author of The Google Legacy. "Each innovation takes some of the oxygen away from the behemoth in Redmond. If Google exerts more pressure, Microsoft might become more confused."

The first Gears-enabled program from Google is Reader, which is an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed reader for blogs and news items. Users who install Gears can then manually download the latest feeds from the Web onto their computer to be read offline. The goal is for programs to synchronize automatically, without users even knowing it is happening, Huber said.

An engineer created a Gears version of Google Reader as part of the company's program in which employees can work on their own projects for 20 percent of their work week. Bret Taylor, head of Google's developer product group, said the engineer wanted to be able to access Google Reader while commuting on the company shuttle, which often has "flaky" Internet access.

Google officials wouldn't say what the next Google Gears application would be, but hinted at it. "I am personally looking forward to Gmail and Calendar working offline," said Huber in his keynote address.

About 1,500 people attended Google's first official Developer Day in San Jose, Calif. That was more than anticipated, so the company had to move the event from its main campus to the San Jose Convention Center. The company brought some of its geek-friendly culture to the bland convention center, including a foosball table, pool table, bean bag chairs, snacks and beverages.

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