Google Gears Could Revolutionize the Online User Experience

Just three years ago the Firefox browser Google Patent Portfolio Valuereached 50 million downloads. At the time it had about four percent of the browser market, but there were no assurances about any browser roadmap from Mozilla. Even before Firefox, browsers had been relegated to the woodshed. Although many online businesses and services depended on the browser, programmers at those companies had virtually no control over the browser platform. Since more than ninety percent of the world used Internet Explorer, the future direction of web-based applications was Microsoft’s unchallenged dominion.

With little foresight and with the desktop application mentality deeply entrenched at Microsoft, the company poured resources into its operating system, not into web-based applications or the browser platform. Microsoft seems to under-appreciate the browser, but imbraces what Tim Bray calls the sharecropper model, preferring to mimic Adobe with Silverlight. But will Microsoft prevail this time with developer lock-in? Where will companies find developers for these closed platforms, and at what price. Developers today have an abundance of open source choices and are favoring open source convenience versus whatever closed source may yet claim as an advantage. Any advantage that once existed has greatly blurred, because open source is not only convenient — but has nearly no strings attached as far as online service delivery goes. Thus will follow a continued explosion of online applications. 

Documentation System in the Sky

At their inception, the browser and HTML introduced global static publishing to the world. People saw it and acknowledged it as providing a simple, clean, unbiased platform. Tim Berners-Lee called his invention the “documentation system in the sky”. In spite of its humble beginnings, the browser is now everywhere, with Firefox three years later, enjoying eighteen percent market share. Safari is also gaining popularity at nearly five percent market share and could become the de facto browser for mobile applications. Because browser-based applications pose a threat Microsoft desktop licensing, Microsoft continues to demonstrate no roadmap, no leadership, no innovation and meager support for timely browser maintenance, much less improvements.

A few years ago no online application vendors cared to admit that Microsoft-dictated changes to Internet Explorer could ruin their business. There was a conspiracy of silence, for fear of partner repercussions from Microsoft. At that time only Google possibly perceived the potential magnitude of the problem if the browser became encumbered with Microsoft-only features. Today awareness of such general vulnerability has changed, and the industry enjoys more choices and less reliance on Microsoft. For instance, Apple has worked to support Webkit, Mozilla is working on a faster Javascript engine, and Google Gears has made substantial progress in its first year. The browser and online applications market are not only healthy, but are at the cusp of an innovation explosion. As Ben Galbraith said at the Google I/O Developer Conference in San Francisco, Wednesday, “The browser jail is being broken.”

An Embedded SQLite Database

So what’s great about Gears? As Aaron Boodman explains, having a SQLite database allows application data to persist on the client for many useful purposes including full text search. With Gears’ LocalServer, applications can run offline. WorkerPool allows processes to run in a background thread, which helps prevent user interaction from being momentarily blocked, something we have all experienced in a browser. Boodman pointed out several Gears introductions made at the conference, including desktop shortcuts, “toast” style desktop notifications, geolocation, a filepicker and blobs. 

Possibly one of the most beautiful things about Gears is the separate namespace, which means a developer never needs to use anything in Gears unless he or she chooses to.  As Boodman demonstrated, all functionality of the Gears plugin is optional. If the same features are natively implemented in a browser, they can be used by default. The idea of Gears is to extend and encourage innovation in browsers, not dictate standards. Since it’s open source, Gears’ features can be readily adopted by the browser developers too, if they wish.

Google Gears could drive the next wave of online application innovation. With both online and offline data, rapidly developed and deployed applications using Gears will shake out more innovations for both consumers and enterprises. Application vendors placing bets on Silverlight or Flex should take a hard look at Gears. Not only is Gears open and free, there is an even better reason for them to consider Gears. Their futures may depend on it.

Photo Credit: Ralph Bijker