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Google will begin to offer browser-based offline access to its Gmail Webmail application, a much-awaited feature. This functionality, which will allow people to use the Gmail interface when disconnected from the Internet, has been expected since mid-2007.
That’s when Google introduced Gears, a browser plug-in designed to provide offline access to Web-hosted applications like Gmail. Gears is currently used for offline access to several Web applications from Google, like the Reader RSS manager and the Docs word processor, and from other providers like Zoho, which uses it for offline access to its e-mail and word processing browser-based applications.
Google ruled out the option of letting users replicate their entire Gmail inboxes to their PCs, which in many cases would translate into gigabytes of data flowing to people’s hard drives. It instead developed algorithms that will automatically determine which messages should be downloaded to PCs, taking into consideration a variety of factors that reflect their level of importance to the user. At this point, end-users will not be able to tweak these settings manually.
To activate the offline functionality, users of standalone Gmail service and the standard Apps edition should click “settings” after logging on to their Gmail account. There, they should click on the “Labs” tab, select “Enable” next to “Offline Gmail” and click “Save Changes.” A new “Offline” link will then appear in the right-hand corner of the account interface. Users of the Education and Premier Apps versions will have to wait for their Apps administrators to enable Gmail Labs for everyone on the domain first.
Google is also rolling out Gears-based offline access for its Calendar application. However, it will be for now read-only and exclusively available to Google Apps account holders. Previously, Google introduced read-only offline access to the Spreadsheet and Presentation applications in Google Docs, which is also part of Google Apps.