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Shed a Tear for Google Gears

This is the umpteenth thing I’ve written about Google’s Gears technology, which enables offline use of Web-based services. It’s also quite possibly the last time I’ll ever mention it.

As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler noticed over the weekend, Google is officially saying that it makes more sense to focus on giving the upcoming HTML5 spec Gears-like capabilities than to continue with Gears itself. It plans no new features for the plug-in, and is ending support for the OS Snow Leopard version altogether. The moves end any remaining chances Gears had of becoming a big deal.

When Gears was announced almost three years ago, I was positively giddy over its possibilities. But the story of Gears turned out to be one of a nifty idea that never lived up to its potential.

What happened? Back in 2007, I assumed that Gears would get robust support in an array of Google services, inspiring other developers to follow Google’s lead. But the company never quite hopped all the way onto its own bandwagon: The offline version of Gmail is pretty impressive, but Google didn’t build a completely Gears-enabled version of Google Docs, useful though one would have been.

Google never worked that hard to sell Gears to users and developers, either. The Gears site does a lousy job of explaining why you’d want to install the plug-in (“Let web applications interact naturally with your desktop…”). As far I can tell, it never attempted to keep track of Gears-enabled services, short though that list would have been. The official blog had a grand total of one post in 2009. Even now, after Google has said that Gears is dead on the Mac and in near-limbo on Windows, the “What is the status of Gears?” section of the official FAQ talks about it being a beta that will lead to a final release.

At this point, Google’s shift to HTML5 makes sense. But by the time HTML5 offline features are a reality in every major browser, we may not need them much. Between EVDO, Wi-Fi, and in-flight Internet access, it’s now rare for me to sit in front of a computer that isn’t connected to the Internet. (I’m still disconnected on some domestic flights, all international flights, and chunks of visits outside the U.S. when I’m too cheap to pay for pricey wireless access–but ask me again in 2012 or so.)

Bottom line: Gears was a great idea in 2007, but it was always one with an expiration date. Its highest-potential years are already over.

The rest of this post is a sort of wake for Gears, in the form of extracts from most of the stuff I wrote about the technology–for PC World, Slate, and Technologizer. Note that my tone shifts from excitement to caution to quiet despair…

June 7th, 2007: Google Gears in Action

Remember the Milk’s offline mode has whetted my appetite for more offline stuff in online apps. Thanks to Gears, I suspect we’ll see a lot of it–surely Google itself is working furiously on offline capabilities for Gmail and Google Docs and Spreadsheets.

June 15th, 2007: Gears of War

Given time, the developers behind RTM and Google Reader should be able to re-create more of the services’ goodness in offline mode. Realistically, though, you can’t completely decouple a great Web-based application from the Web. Flickr is Flickr because it contains petabytes of photos by millions of photographers; Netvibes is Netvibes because it’s constantly grabbing content from other sites. Net-less versions of these services would have to downsize their ambitions. Even so, if there were an offline edition of Flickr that, say, allowed me to manage only the pictures on my home network, I’d grab it in a heartbeat.

April 6th, 2008: The Frustratingly Unfulfilled Promise of Google Gears

If Google Gears is a bandwagon…it’s one that almost nobody–including the proprietors of most of Google’s own services–has jumped on yet..

July 17th, 2009: The Ongoing Unfulfilled Promise of Google Gears

Gears is now more than two years old, and the list of services that support it remains remarkably short. Actually, I’m not sure if there is an official list of Gears-friendly services: Google’s Gears site refers to a “select group” of services, but doesn’t mention them. In this case, “select” is presumably a synonym for “short.” The Wikipedia page for Gears mentions fifteen Gears-enabled services, six of which are from Google itself. For the most part, they don’t replicate all their Web functionality within an offline browser–even Gmail, which may have the neatest Gears implementation to date, offers a reduced set of features.

November 30th, 2009: Goodbye, Google Gears (Sniff!)

Of course, Google has been dropping loud hints that Gears was a goner for awhile now. Apple’s Snow Leopard OS has been out for three months now, but as Milian notes, the standalone version of Gears for use with Firefox and Safari still doesn’t work in it. When I go to the Gears site on my Snow Leopard MacBook Pro, I don’t even get an acknowledgement that there’s a compatibility issue–the “Install Now” button just isn’t there.

December 8th, 2009: Offline Gmail Leaves Labs…But Doesn’t Arrive in Snow Leopard

I was hoping that Google’s announcement of offline Gmail’s formal debut would clarify the status of Gears in general and Gears on Snow Leopard in particular, ideally with an “Offline Gmail doesn’t work on Snow Leopard, but we’re working on it,” or at least with a “Sorry, Snow Leopard users, offline Gmail doesn’t work with your OS.” But nope–Snow Leopard isn’t mentioned.

Like I said back in November: Sniff.

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