SHIFT: What Google Gears means for cloud computing

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.

One of the big trends of 2008 was cloud computing, or the idea that you don't have to use applications or store information on your computer's hard drive, because you can do it easily and efficiently online. We've been able to store e-mail, photos and documents online for years, but never has there been so much good, free Web-based software to let us do it. Many of Google's applications are so user-friendly that they've led some to announce the impending death of the operating system and software as we know it.

But 2009 may mark the beginning of a new trend: reverse cloud computing, where you store data from the cloud on your hard drive. Sound counterintuitive? It is, and it isn't. Last week, Google announced that Gmail would work with Gears, Google-developed software that lets Gmail work seamlessly when it's not connected to the Internet. Hit the Continue jump to explore the ups and downs of using Web applications when you're not online.

Getting into Gear

For years, Gmail has supported systems that let you download e-mail to your computer through programs like Outlook. Unlike Outlook, however, Gears works through your Web browser: It looks just like regular Gmail. Gears isn't new; it's been around for more than a year, supporting programs like Google Documents (and some non-Google based Web software). It's only just begun working with Gmail, and remarkably, it still doesn't work with Google Calendar.

Because offline Gmail is browser-driven, it doesn't feel like offline storage. This is deliberate: Most people will see the application not as a system for backing up e-mails in case of Internet failure, but one that lets you stay connected (or at least feel connected) even when you're in an Internet-free zone.

But that's a limited way of looking at it. Google isn't infallible, and backing up your e-mail is good common sense, though backing up information on a hard drive is already beginning to sound retro.

When Gmail launched, it didn't have a delete button— Google's idea was that readers would want to archive everything. Google soon fixed the delete button problem — it had overestimated the value of most e-mail to readers — but it still has an "archive everything" mentality. This is hardly surprising; since as a search company Google's in the business of finding information, not getting rid of it. But there's a happy medium between never backing up anything and the Google Gears system of saving a document on your computer, then backing it up online and then re-downloading it as e-mail backed up on your hard drive. And it already exists.

Outlook vs. Gears

While some proclaim that the system will destroy Outlook and similar hard-drive based e-mail software, Gmail with Gears is a fundamentally different concept — Outlook lovers aren't going to abandon the program immediately.

Outlook, and similar programs like Eudora and Entourage take mail from a server and store it even if you delete it on the server. Similarly, if you delete mail in Outlook but it's still on the server, you can get it back. These programs retrieve mail and keep it. Gmail with Gears, on the other hand, simply creates an exact replica of your Gmail account. This means that when you delete an email when you're offline (off your hard drive), that email will be deleted from your online Gmail as soon as you reconnect to the Internet. Similarly, when you delete a message online, it won't show up in your offline version of Gmail.

Gmail's system has disadvantages. Let's say you want to clear some attachments from your online account to free up space, but you have plenty of room on your hard drive. You can't keep just some messages in your desktop version of the program. Conversely, I found that one of the most annoying aspects of downloading Gears was that all sorts of big attachments got copied onto my computer. Mostly, the attachments were images, MP3s and documents that already exist on my hard drive. But I can't delete them from my offline version of Gmail, because in that case they won't be stored in Google's cloud either.

Also, if Gmail is in Beta (which it totally shouldn't be, since it's nearly five years old), then Google Gears for Gmail is in Super Beta, with plenty of room for improvement. The program is slow — sometimes alarmingly slow. Shouldn't it be faster than regular Gmail? After all, Google no longer has to retrieve messages from a server way over yonder, just grab stuff from your so-close hard drive.

Google: Not Infallible

Google search's 55 minutes of failure last weekend showed the extent to which most computer users rely on the company. Though I love its products, I too certainly have concerns about total Google reliance. Nonetheless, I welcome Google Gears as an easy backup system that has a fantastic, Google-driven built-in search function. But it should be a little more flexible, instead of making offline Gmail a carbon copy of the online version. After all, when you delete all your girlfriend's e-mails in a drunken fervor, you might want to be able to find the archive somewhere else when you regret that decision the next day.