Adding offline editing abilities to Google Docs may sound like a modest, incremental change, but it's actually a major step ahead for the company's web-based services.
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Apps, speaking at Google I/O.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)
Users have not been able to use Docs, Google's web-based alternative to programs such as Microsoft Word, unless they had an active internet connection. But now, that will be changing, and people will be able to work in Google Docs on aeroplanes, on trains or any other places where a web connection may not be available.
Another two services in the Google portfolio will be taking the offline step soon, as well: Presentations and Spreadsheet apps.
"You'll see that coming out, before long," Alan Warren, senior director for Google Docs and Drive, said in an interview at the Google I/O show. Both of the apps will allow users to read and edit files offline, he added, with the editing features coming "pretty close" after reading abilities launch.
Offline access is important because Google Docs comes with a big red flag: will it work when the network dies or you're disconnected? Without that assurance, a web app will forever lag behind a native app, in a very important way.
"We want to get people thinking that web apps are just as immune to network flakiness as native apps," Warren said.
And that's a big deal, as Google tries to convince business customers to pay for Google Apps, its suite of online apps that costs US$50 per year, per employee. Many organisations sign up for Gmail and Google Calendar, which work offline using mobile phones, but Google, doubtless, wants more people using word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, too.
Google Presentations, which uses a lot of the same technology as Google Docs, will be the first to get offline support, he said. Google Spreadsheets will take longer, because Google is reworking the back-end software — the part of the app that runs on Google's servers.
The revamp is required because Google is making Spreadsheets able to better handle big spreadsheets, with lots of rows, columns and data, he said.
"We're going to relaunch our back end, so we can scale spreadsheet sizes," Warren said.
Re-doing the front end — the downloadable web app that runs in the browser — must wait. "It's a bigger thing," he said. In contrast, "the Presentations machinery is built on the Docs stack. It's going to be much, much quicker".
Google had some offline support in years past, using its now-discontinued browser plug-in called Gears. This time, Google used web standards including AppCache and IndexedDB.
"We tried with Gears, but we didn't really bite the bullet to restructure the front end of the application," Warren said. Just trying to glue on a few patches to the existing project wasn't enough.
Despite the explorations, it's not clear what path the company will take. Native Client and Dart are Google-only, for now, with some other browser makers actively opposed. And, though Google sees faster app performance as a nice incentive to draw people to Chrome, it's difficult to create different versions of the same technology, designed to run on the supposedly universal programming foundation that the web provides.
"You need to have enough bang for the buck to make it worthwhile," Warren said.