Developer expectations run high for Google Gears

Developers have big plans for Gears, the Google Inc. browser plug-in designed to provide offline access to Web-hosted applications.

Although Gears has only been available for about two weeks in an early-stage version, many developers have rushed to give it a test drive and brainstorm for new ways to use it.

The response to Gears reflects the rising demand for using Web-hosted applications without necessarily being connected to the Internet.

Dustin Hand is looking at Gears for a Web application he is creating for an American Red Cross chapter in Tallahassee, Florida. The application must have an offline component so that it can be used even if a major disaster knocks out Internet access.

The application will be used to manage the list of local Red Cross volunteers, and will contain these people's contact information along with their skills.

Once completed and implemented in the Red Cross' Capital Area Chapter of Florida, the application will be pitched for adoption in Red Cross offices nationwide.

"Ensuring that a Web application such as this works during a disaster regardless of the outside [Internet access] networks being down is of top priority," Hand, a Red Cross volunteer IT coordinator, said via e-mail.

Gears, an open source browser extension, contains three components. The first is a local server for caching and delivering "application resources" like HTML and JavaScript without a server connection. The second piece is a database that will allow for storing and accessing data from within the browser. The final component is what Google calls "a worker thread pool," designed to boost Web applications' responsiveness by carrying out operations in the background.

Before Google released Gears at the end of May, Hand was considering hosting the volunteers' database physically in the Red Cross offices for offline access.

However, the chapter lacks the infrastructure to have database access on site. Its Web hosting company could house the database, but then it would be located off site and possibly unavailable in the event of a disaster.

"Google Gears would allow us to use our existing infrastructure -- our off-site database -- in the event of Internet connectivity failure, allowing us to continue to provide expedited service to the victims," Hand wrote.

He acknowledges that Gears still needs significant improvement for usage in production applications, something Google has also made clear.

Although Gears is available to anyone as a free download, at this point it's intended mostly for developers who can give Google feedback to improve the product. Google also hopes to push Gears as an industry standard for offline access to Web-hosted applications.

Another developer with high hopes for Gears is Brandon Kraft from the University Catholic Center campus ministry of the University of Texas at Austin.

Kraft hopes Gears will allow him to give an offline component to a variety of Web-hosted resources available to university students and staff.

Like other early testers, Kraft plans to wait for Gears to mature before using it in production applications. So far, he has run into a few kinks, including a clunky synchronization indicator.

Kraft also stumbled with a known issue that has prevented proxy server users from installing Gears. After the installer failed twice on him, Kraft put Gears aside. A week later, he delved into the issue and, after 20 minutes, worked around it.

"For the average consumer, once they get an error message [during the installation], they won't come back," Kraft said in a phone interview.

The proxy server issue, flagged repeatedly in discussion forums, has caused some developers to take Google to task, a sign that with the high expectations also come strong feelings. Many corporate developers connect to the Internet via a proxy server.

However, by the end of next week, the installer's problem with proxy server connections will be solved for most users, a Google spokesman said Friday.

Google already started updating its servers with the latest version of the Gears installer, and some users have downloaded it already.

"The update will be finished by next week, at which point you can be sure of getting the latest version of the installer from the Gears Web site," the spokesman said via e-mail.

Despite its bugs, Gears has also generated enthusiasm among IT security experts.

"I strongly believe that light footprint on the end-point device -- the user's computer -- makes for strong security. Because of that, I always prefer Web applications to installed applications," Maxime Rousseau, a security consultant with Société Conseil Lambda Inc. in Québec, Canada, said via e-mail.

Despite liking Google's Docs & Spreadsheets Web-hosted application suite, Rousseau doesn't recommend it to clients, saying that it's not fast enough due to Web pages' lagging responses. He believes that Google will eventually address those issues, however.

Although interest is high among users for Gears to support Docs & Spreadsheets, Gmail and other Google hosted applications, Gears currently only supports one Google application: the Reader RSS syndicated feed manager.

"Something like Google Gears has been needed for the Web for quite a long time, and as far as I can tell, it is a nicely structured architecture," Hand, from the Red Cross, wrote.

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