Google is rolling out a much-awaited feature for its hosted applications: the ability for people to use them even when they aren't connected to the Internet.
The first application to get this offline access will be the word processor, said Ken Norton, Google Docs product manager. "The design goal is to create a seamless experience, with or without an Internet connection," he said.
Over the next three weeks or so, Google will turn on the feature for all word processor users, giving them the ability to view and edit documents while offline. During the same time period, Google Docs' spreadsheet will gain offline ability for viewing, but not editing, documents.
Google Docs' third component, an application to make slide presentations, will remain for now without offline access. However, Google has plans to extend the offline access to it and to other hosted services in the Google Apps suite, of which Docs is part. Apps also includes Gmail, Calendar, Talk and others.
"Offline access of [hosted] apps is the next step in making the Web as a whole a lot more reliable," Norton said.
Expectation for offline access in Docs and Apps had been building since Google introduced its Gears open-source technology in May of last year. Until now, Google had only built Gears offline functionality for its Reader RSS feed manager.
By allowing Docs and Apps users to work offline, Google is addressing one of the biggest objections to Web-hosted applications. So far, offline access has required that users export their Docs files to third-party file formats, like Microsoft Office.
To access their Docs files offline, users need only install the Gears plug-in and type in the regular Google Docs URL: docs.google.com.
Work done offline will be automatically synchronized with the Google Docs servers when users connect to the Internet.
As an open-source technology, Gears can be used by developers outside of Google.
The offline access will be turned on "in batches" over the coming weeks in consumer Docs accounts and in the administrator consoles of Apps.
Gears is currently supported in Internet Explorer 6 and above and Firefox 1.5 and above for Windows XP and Vista, according to Google. Firefox 1.5 and above is also supported on Mac OS X 10.2 and above and Linux. Gears also runs on Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 and above in Internet Explorer 4.01 and above.