We recently had the opportunity to meet with two senior executives at Google. At the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, ReadWriteWeb editor Richard MacManus and I met with Dave Girouard, President of Google Enterprise. Then a few weeks later, I met with Vic Gundotra, VP of Engineering, via video conference. Both meetings provided some interesting background – but the one question that keeps returning and that was not so well answered is: why is Google not deploying Gears aggressively?

What Is Gears?

As explained on Google’s FAQ:

“Gears is an open-source browser extension that lets developers create web applications that can run offline. Gears provides three key features:

  • A local server, to cache and serve application resources (HTML, JavaScript, images, etc.) without needing to contact a server;
  • A database, to store and access data from within the browser;
  • A worker thread pool, to make web applications more responsive by performing expensive operations in the background.”

That is important. The biggest single hurdle to mass adoption of web-based office software is the inability to use it when online access is not possible (in airplanes and other fun places off the grid). Offline access is also reassuring for those times when the cloud platform is having trouble: at least you can work offline for a while. This is not a small feature. It is the big one.

We get the usual beta warnings from Google:

“Gears is currently a beta product; moreover, it is currently considered to be a developer-only release. When the developer community has had a chance to examine, critique, and improve Gears, a final version suitable for use with production applications will be made available.”

But we learn to ignore these beta designations from Google. Gmail still says beta.

But in this case, Google really is being shy about fully bringing Gears to its own product line-up.

Zoho Is Using Gears. Why Not Google Apps?

Zoho started using Gears in Writer as early as August 2007, nearly 18 months ago. In October 2008, Zoho Mail went offline with Gears.

On March 31st, 2008, Google announced Gears for Docs. This was a step forward, albeit 8 months after its competition (Zoho) did it.

So, the big question is, “When will Gmail enable offline use via Gears?” I posed this question to Dave Grirouard, President of Google Enterprise. The response was along the lines of, making it work on the scale of Gmail is not a trivial engineering challenge. That sort of made sense. But Gears has been out for a long time; it is a critical feature, and Google has the best software engineering talent on the planet.

Ahem, What About Chrome?

Again, from Google’s FAQ:

“Gears works on the following browsers:

  • Apple Mac OS X (10.4 or higher)
    • Firefox 1.5 or higher
    • Safari 3.1.1 or higher (requires OS X Tiger 10.4.11+ or Leopard 10.5.3+)
  • Linux (Requirements)
    • Firefox 1.5 or higher
  • Microsoft Windows (XP or higher)
    • Firefox 1.5 or higher
    • Internet Explorer 6 or higher
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile (5 or higher)
    • Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher
    • The following devices are not supported
      • Samsung i320 and i320N
      • Orange SPV C600
      • Motorola Q

Additionally, the team is working on supporting Safari on Mac OS X in a future release.”

Notice the elephant not in the room? Yes, Gears does not work on Chrome. Is that because Chrome does not support extensions?

Is Google holding up Gears until Chrome can support Gears? We hope not. That seems contrary to its philosophy to date, which has been to couple them very loosely. So that is probably just coincidence.

Editor’s update: we obviously got the above section totally wrong, so it’s been struck out. Apologies for that error, but thanks to our commenters for quickly pointing it out!

“Gears for Mobile Is the Holy Grail”

I had a fascinating talk with Vic Gundotra (VP of Engineering) and Sumit Agarwal (Mobile Product Management). They laid out a mobile strategy that clearly shows that Google is thinking bigger and deeper than anyone else about the future of this huge market. They were also frank about the scale of the engineering challenge. Looking globally, there is no dominant mobile device. In fact, it is an extremely fragmented market. That is a problem when each user expects a native interface.

Vic Gundotra described how about a year ago Google bet that the mobile browser would be the unifying force. Specifically, the strategy was to standardize on Webkit-based browsers. That makes sense but still leaves out the all-important offline access question. So, I posed the “What about Gears?” question. I was told that Gears in a mobile browser was, of course, the “holy grail.”

The Answer Given Is Probably Correct

Google is confirming that Gears is critically important to both its web apps and its mobile strategy, and that the delay is simply because deploying Gears on the scale that Google operates is a tough engineering challenge. That seems like the best explanation. But we would love to hear from our readers. Have you used Zoho Mail with Gears, and did it work well? Is it simply a scale issue that is delaying Google’s more aggressive deployment of Gears?