One of the classic complaints about cloud computing is that this computing model requires a pervasive Internet connection. And that may be fine for US consumers attached to a high-speed broadband connection, but what about those situations where you're offline--an airplane being the canonical example--or those people who live in more rural areas with more expensive and less reliable Internet connections?
The solution to these issues is a combination of sync and offline usage. A few years back, online giant Google offered an offline mode for some of its more frequently-used online services--Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, if I remember correctly--but the company later withdrew that capability, promising to reimplement it with a more standards compliant, HTML 5-based solution. This new offline solution will eventually be a key component of Google's Chromebook platform too, since those portable computers are basically expensive paperweights without an Internet connection at the moment.
This week, Google finally began rolling out its new offline solution for Gmail (and for Google Calendar and Docs). And I want to be very clear about this, since part of the change to Gmail that happened this week has almost nothing at all to do with the offline bit.
I love it.
There are really two things going on here. First, there's the very necessary addition to offline usage to Gmail (and Google Calendar and Docs); this is important because so many people access these services via the web, and as per the cloud computing complaint stuff mentioned above, the web only works when you're online. Microsoft's solution for offline usage of its Hotmail and Office 365 services is to use a client application (like Outlook) in Windows. I do not like using such applications, and thus this is an area where Google, for now at least, has absolutely pulled ahead of the Microsoft stuff.
Second, as part of this migration to offline usage, Google is introducing a new mobile client for Gmail, separate from the main Gmail service at gmail.com. If you've used an iPad, you've seen it before and probably love it, since it's the same exact web client that Google serves up when you use Gmail from the Safari browser on the iPad. This client is so good, I use it instead of the built-in iPad Mail app. Yes, it really is that good.
The new web client is called Gmail Offline (according to the Gmail blog, though it's called Offline Google Mail in Chrome, go figure). It's a web app for Google Chrome, but you can probably use it in other browsers--I've not thoroughly tested it, but have loaded it, in IE 9 (with errors) and Firefox--by clicking this link.
Here's what it looks like:
See? I told you that was not just possible, but desirable.
Check out the Gmail Blog post about the offline abilities, which are useful and as expected. To me, however, the bigger deal is that new UI. We need more UIs like that, not just for web services, but across the board. This, I hope, is the revolution that Windows 8 will trigger on the client side.