Well they've gone and done it. Google has finally enabled offline access to Google Docs using their Google Gears plug-in. A little late considering Zoho did the same for Zoho Writer way back in November 2007 -- also using Google Gears.
Google Docs and Zoho have always been rather handy for people on the go – you can access your documents from anywhere you can get online, you aren’t having to email yourself documents and it’s dead handy for teamwork, with users finding very useful the potential for sharing and collaboration that applications such as these provide. The Problem With Online Office Suites The snag with online office tools is that you have to get online in the first place for them to work at all. For example, on a plane needing to get some work done you would be hampered by lack of internet access. It seems that a number of Google Docs users, according to Google, were waiting with bated breath for offline access. Google may well have been risking losing them to Zoho.
Well now those users can exhale, as Google starts to roll out offline editing access for word processing documents for Google Docs users, allowing you to work on your documents when you are in the middle of nowhere without an internet connection.
Rolling out in this case means that they are starting with a small percentage of users and expanding the facility to all users over the next few weeks.
Just in case the offline use doesn’t seem clear, Google has provided a neat video to elucidate this process: How Does Offline Access Work? With this new system, as long as you are connected, every change that you make is saved to the online version. When you lose the connection, you lose some features, but can still access your documents and save locally, still using the web browser. Then when the connection comes back, the documents are linked up again with the server.
At present the offline access is only available in English, but one thing that people from outside the English-speaking world will be pleased to hear is that the Google guys are working on offline access in other languages too. This will handy for those who routinely work in more than one language. Google vs. Zoho Google software engineer Philip Tucker describes himself as being “excited about this development”, saying, “I can take my little piece of the cloud with me wherever I go”. Very sweet, but what took Google so long?
Some punters have argued that Zoho is probably more complete than what Google has to offer, with Zoho providing a few more features, making Zoho Writer, the much slicker and more functional word processor.
Sridhar, of the Zoho Blog, argues that the offline feature illustrates a couple of the trends going on in online suites, namely standardization of common functionality as a result of openness, and the speed with which online application suites are maturing.
It seems that Google announced the Gears open source initiative some months back, when Zoho was working on the offline functionality. They allowed Zoho to decide to to standardize on the Gears framework they had no hankering to differentiate on browser plug-ins. Zoho is working on further updates such as their mobile offline edition.
Online applications are developing rapidly, to the extent that they will increasingly become competitors to the traditional desktop suites. It will be interesting to see how Google Docs and Zoho develop further in terms of offline access for their other apps.