A week ago, I ceremoniously yanked out my MacBook's Ethernet cable and toggled off the Wi-Fi. Once I was positive the machine was cut off from the Internet, I added a task to my online to-do list. It worked. I sat back and smiled, agog—I had just seen the future of software.
I wrangle my to-dos with a Web service called Remember the Milk. Compared with a bloated behemoth like Outlook, it's a streamlined, fun-to-use wonder. Rather than sitting on one PC's hard disk, RTM lives on the Web, where it's available on every computer I use. Up until that day, though, it had the same overwhelming problem as every other Net-based service on the planet: It was ... well, Net-based. No Internet connection, no to-do list.
Google's plug-in has a slight head start on two other promising products that, while very different, also aim to take Web services offline: Adobe's AIR and Mozilla's Firefox 3 (which will be the first browser to sport built-in features for the purpose). All three packages are welcome news for anyone who'd like to use Web services when the Internet is down, but their significance goes way beyond that. The modern age of Web services began on April 1, 2004, when Google unveiled Gmail, the first Webmail client that was better than most desktop ones. It's no hype to say that May 30, 2007, the day of Gears' debut, could be equally momentous.
Without offline functionality, after all, a Web suite (like Google Apps or Zoho) could never replace Microsoft Office. With offline functionality, future Web suites just might. Would you shell out $500 for Office 2010 Pro if Google Apps were roughly comparable, available online and offline, and completely free? Probably not. That's why Office will surely leave its desktop roots behind for the Web at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Office isn't the only Microsoft hegemony that Google Gears could help destroy. One of the defining differences between Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux is the application lineup. That's given the crew in Redmond, Wash., tremendous power: It's not purely happenstance that Mac users wait longer for new versions of Office and never get some programs, such as Outlook and Access. But technologies like Gears render the operating system largely irrelevant. Remember the Milk couldn't care less whether it's running in Internet Explorer on Windows or in Firefox on a Mac. Neither could I, since it's exactly the same useful service on both platforms. If productivity applications migrate to the browser, you could choose whatever OS you pleased—your apps would work anywhere and everywhere.