Google announced today that they would be adding the ability for users to work offline in their popular web office suite Google Docs. Offline support will be powered by the Google Gears API, which is a browser extension that allows developers to store application data offline and sync it back up again later when users are reconnected. Some lucky Docs users will get access to the new feature today, with offline support being rolled out to all Google Docs users over the next few weeks.

For now, Google Docs on Gears will only support editing of documents — you can’t create new ones — and is currently only available on the word processor app. Deployment of offline support for the spreadsheet and presentation applications will come later, and will be read-only to begin with.

As we wrote in February, offline access was the one missing component to make Google’s web office a serious competitor to Microsoft Office. Computing in the cloud is great because it means access to your information from anywhere, and on any machine, but it also means reliance on a high-speed Internet connection. Offline access removes that drawback and lets web applications behave even more like their desktop counterparts. Our only question is: what has taken Google so long?

They released Gears in May of last year, and so far the only service of theirs to use it has been Reader. Competitor Zoho launched an offline version of its word processing application using Gears last November, and we’ve long pointed out offline access as a major competitive advantage for Zimbra.

So what has been taking Google so long? Why isn’t it eating its own dogfood and releasing more of its web apps with Gears support? What about Gmail? These are some important questions. The longer Google waits, the more time its competitors have to push out offline versions of their web applications and the longer Microsoft has to finally come up with a web app strategy that makes sense.

Below is a video of Google Docs offline created by Google. As you can see, the offine features function more or less the way they do in Reader.

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