Google gets competitive, taking Gmail users offline

New system uses the Google Gears browser extension

Google on Tuesday launched an updated version of Gmail that lets users access their accounts without an Internet connection.

The updated Gmail hosted e-mail service is designed to load in a browser even when the user doesn't have an Internet connection, according to Joyce Sohn, a Google spokeswoman, in a company blog. The updated service, which the company said was developed in its Gmail Labs, will give flight to users who have been wanting to get some work done while on a plane, for instance. Now, even without a Net connection, users can read e-mail, write new ones and archive others - all while 30,000 feet in the air.

"Remember, we're still working out kinks, which means you might see some issues that aren't completely ironed out," wrote Sohn. "But this is a major step along the way."

She noted that the new system uses the Google Gears browser extension, which has also been used to offline-enable Google Docs and Google Reader.

"This is an important development in the evolution of Gmail," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "With off-line capabilities, Gmail now has at least arguable parity with Outlook, which opens up an entirely new market to them. The addition of off-line calendar functionality will move them into an even better competitive position."

Olds noted that Gmail has been the system of choice for the casual e-mail user and it's the go-to system for people who want extra accounts. Now, Google could see that range expand.

"These off-line features will now make Gmail a viable option for small business people who use Exchange, and it may eat into Microsoft's market share," Olds added. "However, with Outlook being bundled with Microsoft Office, converting large numbers of users from Outlook to Gmail is still going to be an uphill climb."

Google has been busy with Gmail.

Last month, the company announced that it added a new feature to enable users to find and access their Google documents straight from the desktop. Dubbed Google Docs Gadget for the Desktop, the new tool is the new big brother to the Docs gadget in Gmail.

The new feature may give Google's Docs a needed popularity boost.

Last month, an independent study showed that OpenOffice.org's free office suite to be five times more popular among adult US Internet users than Google Docs. OpenOffice.org was used by 5 per cent of people, versus Google Docs' 1 percent, according to a six-month study conducted by market research firm ClickStream Technologies.

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