As Google deepened its support for offline access via IMAP this week, Zoho, its closest competitor in the web office space, was publicly unveiling its own support for offline and access, ironically using Google’s own Gears platform.
Curiously Zoho decided that to bring users’ mailboxes offline, Gears was a better technological platform for offline access than the IMAP protocol; though we’re assured IMAP is coming.
Regardless, the offline features seem pretty comprehensive despite currently being restricted to Gears for Firefox and Internet Explorer and with most online features being available offline – messages, images & attachments are optionally available and a clever connectivity detection feature automatically determines whether a network is visible, flipping between offline and online modes as appropriate, with offline messages queued for later deliver when connectivity becomes available.
A Gears configuration dialog allows users to select the number of messages to download initially, how many Sent Items should be stored for offline access.
Finally, though Zoho is pitching mobile access alongside offline support, in reality Zoho Mail is currently only optimised for the iPhone.
Though the offline support appears to work well enough – as do other Gears-enabled services such as Google Reader – mainstream offline access seems a little too fragmented for comfort.
Where standards such as IMAP are pretty much guaranteed to work across multiple platforms, clients and services, supporting entire classes of application, such as email. AIR, Gears, Prism and Silverlight all seem to be mechanisms for locking users into a vendor platform, forcing developers to have to divide their efforts in supporting them.
As an industry, we should be thinking more responsibly about data portability through standards…a complex endeavor, but in the longer term much more viable and stable than the collection off offline platforms and browser combinations we see today.
Read more about Zoho’s offline and iPhone support here…
(Incidentally, I’ll be meeting Zoho’s evangelist, Raju Vegesna, later this month at O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo Europe. If you have questions for Raju, please drop me a message!)