As of this week, Gmail has reached perfection: You no longer have to be online to read or write messages. Desktop programs like Microsoft Outlook have always been able to access your old mail. There is a certain bliss to this; if you've got a pile of letters that demand well-composed, delicate responses (say you're explaining to your boss why you ordered that $85,000 rug), unplugging the Internet can be the fastest way to get things done. That's why offline access is a killer feature—it destroys your last remaining reason for suffering through a desktop e-mail program.
Google's not alone in providing this option. Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, Yahoo's Zimbra, and the mail app made by the Web startup Zoho, among other services, also provide some measure of untethered e-mail access. For now, Google calls this addition "experimental"—you've got to turn it on explicitly, and the company is asking users to report any bugs—but I found it easy to set up and a delight to use.
To get offline access, you first need to download and install a small program called Google Gears (except if you're using Google's Chrome browser, which comes with Gears built in). Then, after you enable Gmail's offline capability, the system will download two months of your most recent messages, which should take 30 minutes to an hour. Now you're good to go: When you're offline, type www.gmail.com into your browser, log in—yes, Gears enables you to log in even when you don't have a Web connection—and there's your e-mail. Though I work from home and rarely find myself away from a hot Wi-Fi connection, I shut off my router and parked myself on my couch for about an hour yesterday. I loaded up Gmail on my laptop, and it responded seamlessly—I could read, search through, and respond to any message I'd received during the last two months, all through the familiar Web interface. Eureka! I'll never again be mailless on a plane, a subway, or anyplace else where you don't have the Web but do have a lot of time to kill.
Now that Gmail has bested the Outlooks of the world, it's a good time to assess the state of desktop software. There are some things that work better on your computer (your music app, your photo editor, your spreadsheets), and there are some that work better online (everything else). Over the last few years, we've seen many programs shifting from the first category to the second—now you can get spreadsheets and photo editors online, though they're still not as good as programs hosted on your computer. But e-mail has crossed the line completely. Hosted services like Gmail are now the most powerful and convenient way to grapple with a daily onslaught of mail. If you're still tied to a desktop app—whether Outlook, the Mac's Mail program, or anything else that sees your local hard drive, rather than a Web server, as its brain—then you're doing it wrong.
The shift has been a long time coming. On July 4, 1996, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, two techies who met while working at Apple, launched Hotmail, the first free e-mail service on the Web. The date wasn't accidental—from the beginning, Web-based e-mail sought to liberate people from the strictures imposed by traditional providers (ISPs, universities, and employers, all of whom required some official affiliation before they gave you an e-mail address). Hotmail would give an inbox to anyone—you could even sign up for multiple addresses—and pretty soon it was impossible to find a soul who didn't e-mail.
But it was a terrible hassle to actually use Hotmail—which Microsoft purchased in 1997—or the rival e-mail systems built by Yahoo, AOL, and the various other Web portals that dominated the last tech boom. Back then, Web-based e-mail was a great idea executed poorly. Internet connections, Web browsers, and Web-design technologies were slow and flaky; you waited an eternity to load up a message, you could easily lose a draft of a long e-mail if something went amiss with your modem, and you had a limited amount of storage space. Web e-mail was a redoubt of amateurs. If you were serious about your inbox, you kept it on your desktop.