Google Gears Up to Take Web Services Beyond the Web

Google just can’t seem to resist baiting the 800-pound gorilla in Redmond. With Google Gears, just announced minutes ago, it’s providing Web developers a way to take their online services offline—essentially, providing an alternative platform, based on the Web browser, to Microsoft’s Windows.

Gears, an extension to the major Web browsers (including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer), will let developers tweak their online services so they can be used offline as well. So people can, for instance, download their blog feeds or their emails at home or the office, then read them on the train or the plane. When they connect again, everything gets synched up with the online version. Google’s providing a sample with its own Google Reader.

The announcement comes on the heels of Google’s push earlier this year into online office productivity applications, another Microsoft stronghold. Still, goading Microsoft isn’t the main reason for Gears. Essentially, it promises to plug one of the big holes in online applications: the need to work off the grid when you’re on a plane, too far away from a WiFi connection, or anywhere else you can’t get online.

Whether or not Microsoft’s the target of this effort, this is clearly Google’s effort to get Web developers on its side. It wants to shrug off the (accurate) perception that it has pretty much wanted to build or buy every application itself and hasn’t been as helpful to outside developers as Yahoo!,, eBay, and of course Microsoft. “Relative to the Web, we were perhaps a bit late to the party” with a program to help outside developers build atop Google technology,” says Jeff Huber, a VP of engineering at Google. “We’re evolving our thinking from Google being just products for end-users to providing building blocks for others and ourselves to build applications.” The effort is kicking off with Google’s first worldwide developer day in 10 locations around the world on Thursday, which has attracted more than 5,000 developers, 1,500 in Silicon Valley alone.

Gears will be open-source, meaning developers can modify and improve it without Google’s express permission. What’s the appeal for other Web sites to build services on top of Google, a potential rival? For one, they can create mashups, or unique combinations of Web services, much more easily than writing them themselves. For instance, there are already hundreds of mashups that combine Google Maps with local traffic data and crime stats. For another, they can reach the millions of Google users, potentially driving them to their own sites. And finally, they can attract users who shy away from some Web applications because they can’t be used without a Net connection, such as online word processors or spreadsheets.

Will it work? Probably, but Google has some work to do. “Microsoft has forgotten more about developer support than Google knows,” notes David Card, an analyst with Jupiter Research. “But they’re learning.”

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