There are winds of change sweeping the global software market— and you could see it next in the most ubiquitous activity on the Internet: e-mail.
If current indications are anything to go by, Microsoft's popular Outlook software and IBM's Lotus Notes could see a part of their markets chipped off by free alternatives, though one could always argue about the richness of features.
Gmail is the service from Google that literally changed the way e-mail is accessed and stored. Three years ago when Gmail was launched it gave the flexibility which no other e-mail, not even your very own POP and SMTP (that enabled downloading of your e-mails on your desktop computer) offered.
Combined with virtually unlimited storage (currently at 2.9 gigabytes (GB) and increasing by the second), flexibility using the Ajax software framework, Gmail has been a dream-come-true for users needing large amounts of space and an easy manageability which search features provide.
Gmail and e-mail have today become almost synonymous for many, with built-in features like a browser-based chat and other applications that have added to the traction.
Currently Gmail stores your e-mail online. Which means you cannot access it when you are not connected to the Net. But all that may be about to change.
According to highly placed sources, Google has developed an offline version of Gmail. Gmail Offline will allow users to browse, reply, save drafts and do everything that currently Gmail does in an offline mode even when you don't have an Internet connection. On current indications, this would mean that you would download a software client for this. When you get online your Gmail client would automatically synchronise (sync) with the Gmail server (network computer) and send and receive e-mail. A Google spokeswoman in India officially denies such a thing but there is ample evidence to believe Gmail Offline is in fact a reality and may soon be hitting a browser close to you. This has tremendous implications for corporate e-mail, but more on that later.
The ground for Gmail Offline was set on March 31 this year when Google launched Google Gears, an open-source technology platform under which software developers could create offline Web applications. The following three features that Google Gears provides are noteworthy – and here is where the framework for Gmail Offline is based.
A database, to store and access data from within the browser.
A worker thread pool, to make Web applications more responsive by performing expensive operations in the background. Think of it like assistants quickly and quietly working to help you pack your goods while you have many things to do.
The ground has already been set with Google Gears helping create an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) application, Google Reader, to help download Web content like news and blogs through an offline software. The Google spokeswoman confirmed that the Reader is being made available offline. E-mail is only a few steps away, as downloading and synchronizing are the main activities performed.
Gmail owes its superb speed and functionality to the AJAX framework. For the uninitiated , AJAX is a Web development technique used for creating interactive Web applications. In January it was reported that a team of AJAX experts was working on a new capability to enable Web applications to work offline. A short while later the AJAX community also began creating an offline model of Gmail and Blogger on their own. Blogs like Sitepen.com decided to sponsor and fund tools like "The Dojo Offline Toolkit" which allow applications to work offline.
In the AJAX version done by independent developers around January, a small download of between 100 kb to 300 kb a button comes on the upper-right corner in a Web application saying "Work Offline." Two months later, Google launched its Gears programme – echoing the AJAX practice.
If this trend is anything, we could soon see offline avatars of Gmail, Docs (documents) and other software. Now, if all that rests on your desktop, it begins to somewhat resemble Microsoft's Office Suite, right?
That Microsoft is feeling the heat from Google Docs can be gauged from the fact that Microsoft is now giving students in the US a chance to buy Microsoft Office 2007 for $60, a deep discount of 91 per cent! Gmail Offline and overall the "Google Gears factory" churning out offline applications would make Google like a backer of "cross-border" help to guerrillas fighting Microsoft's desktop dominance.
Gmail offline perhaps targets Outlook in the hope of securing the offline domination of e-mail from Microsoft. According to well-placed sources, Gmail Offline is likely to be launched within this year and this will likely add to Microsoft woes already reeling under repeated attacks from Google.
(The author is the editor of a journal devoted to business and technology issues. firstname.lastname@example.org)