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Saturday, June 2, 2007

Google moves further into Microsoft's territory with offline software

Google fired another warning shot across the bows of Microsoft yesterday with the launch of software that allows people to use its services even when they are not connected to the internet.

Google Gears will help people to take information from web-based programs and use it offline, enabling them to use services that usually requires a web connection on a computer's hard disk instead.

The system is also being opened up to allow independent developers to create their own products based on the concept.

The announcement will be watched closely by Microsoft, which recently launched its own system, Silverlight, for bridging the gap between the online and offline worlds. The arrival of Gears could be particularly threatening because it is likely to help Google Docs, the company's suite of office software, make a concerted challenge to Microsoft's core office software business.

Docs — which incorporates word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs — only works with an active internet connection. Allowing it to operate on a computer's hard drive would bring it into competition with the dominant Microsoft Office brand and mark the latest step in Google's slow but inexorable invasion of the Seattle-based software company's territory.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, said that giving external programmers the ability to develop the system would strengthen its position.

"With Google Gears, we're tackling a key limitation of the browser in order to make it a stronger platform for deploying all types of applications," he said. "We believe strongly in the power of the community to stretch this new technology to the limits of what's possible and ultimately emerge with an open standard that benefits everyone."

The announcement came as Google launched its first international Developer Day, an open house event being held in 10 locations worldwide with more than 5,000 attendees. The concept behind it is to talk to third parties who build software and services based on Google's business, and explain some of the inner workings of its products to them.

By opening up the often-secretive world of Google and encouraging more corporate partners, it believes it can increase its penetration of the web even further. With many web start-ups created on the back of so-called "mash-ups" — hybrids that mix different online services together to create a new concept — larger technology organisations have found that third parties are even more reliant on them.

"This is a complete shift from the portal strategy of the 1990s," said Jeff Huber, Google's vice president of engineering. "Back then everyone was in it for themselves, there was no integrating with rivals and you were only working for yourself. Now we are thinking about our products as building blocks. It's a virtuous cycle."

Google is just one of a number of companies investing heavily in these concepts, with rivals such as Yahoo!, Microsoft and Amazon also following suit. Many are particularly keen to contribute to the open-source community, which develops software and tools that can be used freely by anybody at no cost. Alexandra Palace in London will play host to a "Hackday" event this month being held jointly by Yahoo! and the BBC intended to foster relations with the technical community.

"I think that all these events are part of a conversation that has to happen between companies like the BBC and everyone else," said Matthew Cashmore, development producer at the BBC. He stressed that it was important for many people to be able to talk to each other face to face and get a feeling for the internet industry outside of Silicon Valley. "It has to be very social; you can't exist solely on the web, you have to be out there rubbing shoulders with each other. It's important in this industry that it's not all just about west coast America."

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