What Google Gears means for SaaS developers

Gears is almost a defensive announcement, an admission that the browser needs to move up a gear (pun intended) if it's going to stay relevant to the needs of Web application users.

Google's announcement of Gears has handsomely fulfilled the first of my end-of-year predictions for on-demand, made back in December:

"We'll see more and more on-demand vendors coming out with clients that support offline working. In fact, I think we're going to see an important debate developing in the SaaS industry about the best way to deliver functionality to users."

Google Gears Firefox add-inThat second sentence is an important qualification. Coming in the wake of the release of both Adobe Apollo and Microsoft Silverlight, Gears is almost a defensive announcement (screenshot courtesy of Marc Orchant's write-up). Far from being some kind of knock-out blow for desktop applications, as the Financial Times naively implied today, I see Gears as an admission that the browser needs to move up a gear (pun intended) if it's going to stay relevant to the needs of Web application users.

The argument about user-facing functionality goes way beyond offline working, though that's the most pressing need. Users also want graphical and multimedia capabilities, real-time information and instant response times, which in many cases means using Silverlight (plus its underlying XAML and .NET framework components) or Apollo to tap into the local processing capabilities of the client device. Increasingly, users will be doing mashups that bring together data and streams from multiple Web resources directly on the client, sometimes opting to use full-blown desktop applications such as Outlook or Excel to access and work with Web-resident data and application services. The role of Gears, then, is to allow the browser to keep pace with these growing demands for greater client-side functionality. I liked fellow-ZDNet blogger Ryan Stewart's verdict on this:

"There is no one 'right way'. The browser isn't going to start delivering every application we use and the desktop isn't going to rear up again and become the platform of choice for every developer. There is a blend here between browser applications and desktop applications that we will all be finding an equilibrium for."

For SaaS application developers, the advent of Gears adds another option on the continuum between wholly browser-resident applications and totally client-installed alternatives — with the added advantage that Google has not only put its imprimatur behind it but has also sought (enlisting crucial support from Adobe among others) to establish a standard that everyone will converge on. That's vitally important for making sure that, as vendors increasingly seek to use client-side functionality, we don't end up with incompatible application frameworks interacting in unexpected ways.