Google Gears and Microsoft IE6 Ride Into the Sunset

Two cowboys ride off into the sunset. The younger of the two was brought in to do a specific job for a limited time, while the older has been around for what seems like forever.

I refer respectively to Google Gears and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6. We’ll start with the latter, the browser that would not die, but that seems to have got a lot closer to extinction this year.

The IE6 story is well told, mainly in comic strip form, by Brad Colbow at Smashing Magazine. (By the way, I like Smashing enough to suggest that you sign up for its newsletter and for a chance to win some of the cool giveaways.)

So, on to the story of the Mountain View Kid: Google Gears. Gears’ most striking feature is that it allows you to access the web without an internet connection. It is of course necessary that the browser and the sites you’re using are Gears-enabled.

So why can the Kid? Because offline access to the web belongs in web standards. So Google has shifted effort away from Gears itself and “towards bringing all of the Gears capabilities into web standards like HTML5” (quoting from the Gears API blog).

Reaction to the Gears news seems to have been positive. To some, it looks good because standards are good (and I think they are usually better than the alternative). To others, the news about Gears looks good because Gears itself wasn’t (and my own limited use of Gears did yield some rather weird results).

MG at TechCrunch thinks that Gears deserves to die because it is guilty of being a plugin, and plugins fragment the web. While I see what he means, I don’t think all plugins are equally guilty. For example, without Gears, I need an internet connection to access the web, but I’m used to that. Flash is far more guilty: without it, much of the web is unusable.

In sum, I’m glad that each of these two cowboys is taking a last ride. To mix metaphors, the web will be a less tangled place without them.

Thanks to German Vidal for making the photo available under Creative Commons.

Google Gears at WordPress.com

If your blog is hosted at WordPress.com, you might have noticed a link on your blog’s dashboard (top right): Speed Up. If you click on it, you’ll find that it asks you about Google Gears. It hasn’t been a secret that Gears support is coming to WordPress.

But the average WordPress.com blogger didn’t know that, and probably didn’t know what Google Gears is. The Gears Help Center isn’t very helpful. For example, it tells us that “Gears is a plug-in that extends your browser to create a richer platform for web applications” but doesn’t tell us why we’d want to enable it for our blogs.

Let’s try to clear a few things up. Some of the following comes from the support forum topic on Gears that was started today.

  • Gears is a browser plugin. If the plugin hasn’t been implemented for browser and version you’re running, you simply won’t see “Speed Up” on your dash. From this point on, I’ll assue that you do see SU.
  • If you click on SU, you’ll be asked it you want to get the browser plugin. You don’t have to.
  • Once you have the plugin, you’ll be asked if you want to enable it for use with WordPress. By the way, the question could be better worded. It’s really asking if you want to enable it for use with that particular WordPress.com blog.
  • If you say yes to enabling Gears, it will download some stuff from the blog to your machine.
  • Because you have a local copy of said stuff, the amount of back-and-forth with the WordPress.com server will be reduced. That’s why the “Speed Up” was chosen as the text you click on to use Gears.
  • When Gears first came out, about a year ago, it was widely described in terms of offline access. Once you have a local copy of stuff, you can use that copy when the server isn’t available, including when you have no web access.

In closing, it’s worth emphasizing that Gears is opt-in. In particular, WordPress.com will not automatically add the Gears plugin to your browser. Neither will it stop working if there is no plugin for your browser.

The Web as Platforms?

If Web 2.0 is the web as platform, then what comes next? I fear that the answer is: the web as platforms. Posts today at TechCrunch and at GigaOm explain the problem, and suggest solutions.

At TC, Nic strikes an optimistic note. He points out that technologies such as AIR, BrowserPlus, and Gears share the worthy aim of allowing “a new generation of web applications with better performance, more functionality and tighter desktop integration.” He sees “an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of the past and instead take a standards-based approach.”

Those mistakes were embodied in web sites that advised us that they were best viewed some specific version of Internet Explorer, and at some specific screen resolution. The 2009 version of this mistake might manifest itself in sites that declare: we need Gears to work properly, and don’t even think about trying to view us on a phone. Yes, the phones complicate things yet further, but let’s not get into that now.

Stacey at GO is less optimistic than Nic at TC. I’ll quote her extensively, because she does exasperation well, and provides another candidate term for what comes after the web as platform.

I have copies of Air, Gears and BrowserPlus on my machine, and each have their pros and their cons. Air essentially brings the browser offline, while BrowserPlus runs outside of the browser to make your desktop an extension of the web. Gears runs inside the browser, making Firefox even more unstable, but does make my web browsing faster…

It’s my job to play around with these sites, but I can’t imagine the average user wanting to download three or four different programs in order to optimize their browsing experience. I still get irritated about upgrading Flash…

Skylar Woodward, a software engineer at Yahoo… thinks eventually some of the code behind these efforts will be opened up to the community, making it easier for developers to implement multiple platforms on their sites. In the meantime, he champions the idea of “graceful degradation.” In that scenario, a user can see the site without downloading a platform, he just might miss out on a few nifty features in the process.

So for those of you too lazy to click through on those installs, welcome to the gracefully degraded Internet.

Google Gears and the Need for Speed

The purpose of Google Gears, I thought, was to make browser-based applications available when the web wasn’t available. I was right, but there’s more to Gears than that.

MySpace said it would use Google Gears to power search and sort functions for its email, giving users a highly sought-after functionality at little cost to MySpace infrastructure, reports GigaStacey. So Gears allows MySpace to do more processing without having to invest in more cloud power.

James left the intersting comment that WordPress is using Gears in a similar way. I clicked over to his Geniosity blog, where I found his post about WordPress 2.6 and Gears. That forthcoming version of WordPress uses Gears to manage a cache. James finds it appropriate that the way to enable this caching is to click on the new “Speed Up!” button.

I’ll resist the temptation to make jokes about “Automattic gears” and “top gear.”

Google Gears Grinding Slowly

Almost a year ago, Google released Gears, a browser plugin to enable web applications to work even without internet access. Many of us thought at the time that it was a big deal.

Some of us are still waiting for our Google Docs to get geared up. Google started rolling out Gears for Docs a week ago, but it hasn’t rolled as far as me yet.

Harry McCracken has a good post at PC World about the (so far) Unfulfilled Promise of Google Gears.

The fact that Google itself hasn’t done that much with Gears-enabled applications yet–at least in any form that it’s willing to make public–is probably the best evidence that doing great stuff with Gears is far from a cakewalk… Google is clearly pretty serious about Google Docs (and Google Apps, which rolls in Gmail and other applications). And full-fledged offline functionality would be such a major step forward for Docs and Apps that you gotta think that Google will make it happen if it can.

As for Web developers other than Google, I’m not sure whether they’re struggling with Gears, or whether there’s simply less interest in offline apps than I hoped and guessed there would be.

I hope that the gearing-up of Google Docs will be a turning point (or tipping point, for the trendier among you) for Google Gears. I also hope to be able to try it out soon, and that it works better for me than Google Reader did.