I persist in believing that we don’t know enough about Google’s Chrome OS to either love the idea or hate it. But this I know: If Chrome OS netbooks only work when they’ve got an active Internet connection, they’ll make no sense at all. The day may come when Internet access is available everywhere and everywhere. But for now, computers need to provide some level of functionality even when they’re cut off from the Net.
I’m assuming that Google wouldn’t dispute that and is building a Chrome OS that will work offline in one fashion or another. Which got me thinking about a Google project that’s both one of my favorites and a major disappointment: Gears.
When Google announced in 2007 that it was developing a framework to help Web services run even when the Web wasn’t available, my PC World pals and I got so excited that we named Gears as the year’s most innovative product. Then another few months passed, and I got worried that the Web wasn’t jumping on the Gears bandwagon as quickly as I’d hoped it would.
Gears is now more than two years old, and the list of services that support it remains remarkably short. Actually, I’m not sure if there is an official list of Gears-friendly services: Google’s Gears site refers to a “select group” of services, but doesn’t mention them. In this case, “select” is presumably a synonym for “short.” The Wikipedia page for Gears mentions fifteen Gears-enabled services, six of which are from Google itself. For the most part, they don’t replicate all their Web functionality within an offline browser–even Gmail, which may have the neatest Gears implementation to date, offers a reduced set of features.
Making Web services work sans Web is, clearly, really hard. Even for a company with as many smart people and resources as Google (and Gears is an open-source project, so it’s not even limited by the amount of attention Google is able to devote to it). I’m still a Gears fan, and I’m still hopeful that Gears will turn out to be a late bloomer rather than a cool idea that never caught on. For now, though, it’s proof that Web technologies still benefit mightily from having access to the Web.
As far as I know, Google hasn’t said what role Gears plays in Chrome OS. It’s a safe bet that it’s part of the OS, and that Gears-enabled services will work on Chrome OS netbooks. But does it provide Chrome OS with its only offline features? We just don’t know. Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, so it’s also entirely possible that it’ll have some level of support for Linux apps. Any guesses?