Being a non-developer I was a bit of a fish out of water at Google Developer Day yesterday. The event, which took place in the 10 countries where Google has offices, was intended to showcase Google Gears and the company’s various APIs. I attended the event in California, which was moved from Google’s Mountain View headquarters to the San Jose Convention Center to accommodate demand and attendance.
The Gears initiative is about creating an open standard to help turn the Web browser into a better, richer development platform and enabling applications to work “offline,” when there’s an inconsistent or non-existent Internet connection.
Fundamentally it bridges the current gap between the browser and desktop software.
Sergey Brin, in a roundtable interview with press after the morning session yesterday, specifically deflected competitive questions about Microsoft and said instead that the company was responding to user feedback and unmet needs in rolling out Gears. He said that there had been a “huge uptake” in Google Docs and that users wanted the ability to work with these tools offline.
“I want access to my stuff and don’t want to have to worry about devices or operating systems, with everything in the cloud,” Brin added. There were two opposite use cases that kept coming up: business travelers on airplanes and the developing world.
The ability to access applications such as Google Calendar, Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Gmail on an airplane (where there is no connection) will make these apps more useful to enterprise users. (Google Reader is currently available but these other applications have yet to be rolled out for Gears.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, developing countries with limited or spotty Internet access will be able to use Google Apps — or any third party applications built on Gears.
Notwithstanding the avoidance of Microsoft competitive questions, the de-facto availability of these Google applications offline does address one barrier to adoption by business users in particular. They will not take market share from Microsoft Office any time soon but a segment of users may find Gears-enabled Google Apps to be a reasonable alternative in some cases.
Brin said also that the initiative was not just about access to applications but also their performance and responsiveness. “We started to fix the browser [with Gears] but there are still other problems to be solved.”
Other Google representatives at the table made the point that this was less about Google than creating a richer browser development platform for others. In that sense this is a logical extension of what Google started by releasing its Maps API to the world. They said that Google would benefit ultimately, albeit indirectly, through third-party creativity and applications that they expect to come out of Gears. Google Mapplets is an example of that.
With Maps and mashups Google built a “developer community” indirectly and somewhat passively. I got a very different feeling from yesterday’s event. Here was Google, as Web services and browser-based software company, self-consciously trying to extend the momentum and excitement it had generated with its Maps and other APIs into entirely new realms.