The Official Gmail Blog bears good news this afternoon: Gmail’s “Labs” experimental-feature proving ground is adding offline access, letting you read and send e-mail even when you don’t have a live Internet connection. Once you turn it on, you can choose between an online mode, an offline mode, and a “flaky connection” one that behaves as if you were online but synchronizes mail in the background as possible.
The blog post goes to pains not to raise folks’ expectations too high: “Offline Gmail is still an early experimental feature, so don’t be surprised if you run into some kinks that haven’t been completely ironed out yet.” And truth to tell, Gmail already plays nicely with e-mail clients that support POP and IMAP, so it’s already easy enough to use Gmail even when you can’t get to Gmail. But I’m still looking forward to trying out the new feature (which hasn’t been enabled in my Gmail account yet, although Google says it should show up shortly).
Offline Gmail uses Gears, the Google technology for offline browser access that Google Docs also takes advantage of. Docs uses Gears to provide a pretty skimpy subset of the online version’s capabilities–you can only edit word-processing documents, and lose a lot of features–but Google’s blog post says “Our goal is to provide nearly the same browser-based Gmail experience whether you’re using the data cached on your computer or talking directly to the server.” (One question which the Google blog post doesn’t appear to answer: Can I download every kilobyte of the gigabytes of e-mail that sit in my Gmail account to my hard drive, so there’s truly no distinction between Gmail’s online and offline flavors?)
Gears is an exciting piece of technology, but it seems safe to say that it doesn’t make building offline apps into a cakewalk: It was introduced back in May, 2007 and there are still only a handful of services (from Google or anyone else) that take advantage of it. At first, I assumed the launch of Gears meant offline Gmail was imminent; then I forgot it might even be a possibility. And now I’m pleased to see that it’s been in the works all along.
At the pace that major Web services are figuring out how to go offline, I think it’s possible that Internet access will get close to pervasive before offline access can be assumed. Once you can get on the Net from an airplane or the boonies, you might only care about offline access for those rare moments when your connection (or Gmail itself) has temporarily conked out. Even then, it would still be handy…