As it is with everything Google does, the technology world went into a tizzy when in 2007, the search giant released Google Gears, a way to access web applications offline in your browser. Microsoft responded with its own technology and Adobe Systems came out with AIR. And while our readers were divided on Google Gears, we were skeptical of the technology, mostly because of its limitations.
Despite our skepticism, Google Gears, which worked on most major browsers and most operating systems, made its way into some of my favorite applications including Google Docs. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t pay much attention to Google Gears. I was always so connected — with a BlackBerry, an iPhone, wireless broadband via MiFi, broadband at home and at the office — and so never needed offline access. And while another time I would have used Google Gears was when I was flying, now there’s usually connectivity in the air as well. Besides, even though I like the idea of connectivity when flying, I much prefer to write out my thoughts in long hand in my always-on Moleskin notebook.
Now, nearly two years later, Stacey has pointed out to me a story in the Los Angeles Times about Google quietly phasing out Google Gears. The company is instead betting the farm on HTML5, a constellation of technologies that make it easy to replicate the Google Gears functionality.
“We are excited that much of the technology in Gears, including offline support and geolocation APIs, are being incorporated into the HTML5 spec as an open standard supported across browsers, and see that as the logical next step for developers looking to include these features in their websites,” a Google spokesman told The Los Angeles Times.
Given that HTML5 is still a work in progress, Google is keeping Gears on life support, as outlined in these comments by a spokesman for the company:
“We’re continuing to support Gears so that nothing breaks for sites that use it. But we expect developers to use HTML5 for these features moving forward as it’s a standards-based approach that will be available across all browsers.”
So what’s behind Google’s big bet on HTML5? In a word: mobile.
The company wants to push HTML5 so that people use it to write web apps that match the quality of the native apps for its two emergent platforms: Android and Chrome OS. Google’s biggest problem with both of these mobile-oriented operating systems is that it has to work with hardware partners, which makes it difficult for the company to maintain a tight control on the ecosystem. Motorola, HTC, Sony Ericsson and Samsung have all come out with their own interfaces for the Android, which is already causing some developer dissatisfaction. Against such a backdrop, it makes perfect sense for Google to promote web-based apps, because it means there be will a unified experience for end users, regardless of the device (and the platform.)
Oh, and let’s not forget about Apple!
Steve Jobs & Co. scare the bejeezus out of Google. In a recent interview with Fox News, Google CEO Eric Schmidt candidly admitted that his company needed an open Internet in order to do its job. Indeed, just as it needs to corral information we are likely to search for, Google needs as much access as it can possibly get to what you and I do in order to serve us more targeted advertising.
Apple, on the other hand, thanks to the growing popularity of its applications, is promoting a new way of interacting with what is clearly going to be the next big platform: the superphone. Just as Facebook is training people to consume information via the news feed (river of news) format, Apple is turning compute usage into a specific activity. In doing so, it’s causing some problems for Google, as apps are silos that are out of reach from Google’s spiders. If Google can’t access the content, it can’t serve up matching adds. I suspect that has something to do with why Google decided to spend $750 million to buy AdMob. The ad company’s code is embedded inside thousands of iPhone apps, so its acquisition will ostensibly give Google a chance to still make money despite being locked out of the apps.
As we wrote back in August, HTML5 is a good way to break Apple’s stranglehold, as illustrated by this Pie Guy variation of the classic Pacman game, which uses HTML5 to replicate the user experience you would find normally in a native iPhone app. With web apps, Google can not only continue to have access to user data (public not private), it can also continue to serve advertising to those users. For developers, it would mean embedding Google ads in their web apps. I like the gumption of Google’s plan, except for one small thing: Web apps will need better wireless networks with much lower latency and higher bandwidth capabilities in order to meet (and beat) the native apps.
So there you have it — why Google Gears must die in order for Google (and HTML5) to live on.