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Getting in to Gears

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Analysis The most critical battle in the wireless world is to take the reins of the mobile internet as it evolves, and that means all the majors are trying to create a software platform that will make the web even more usable on a small device than it is on a PC, and so drive new applications and revenue streams.

The company that plays the greatest role in defining these new behaviors and interfaces can hope to gain Microsoft-class influence on the mobile platform, and with the exception of the Windows giant itself, all the other candidates are increasingly going the open source route, to build up a rich software base and large developer community in the least possible time.

Sun, Adobe, Microsoft, Yahoo and Nokia have all taken new strides in the mobile internet direction recently, with the launches of JavaFX, Apollo, Silverlight, Go Mobile and Widsets, respectively. Now it is the turn of Google, and the search giant is looking to move squarely on to the high ground recently grasped by Sun and Nokia, and create a whole new mobile operating system/development platform to rival Java, Series 60 and of course Windows Mobile/.Net CF.

One of the key elements will be the new Gears software, announced by Google to enable web work to be conducted offline in the absence of a strong connection - a feature that, while it crosses all platforms, could be particularly significant to highly mobile devices, though hardly welcome to the cellular carriers and their ambitions to provide always-on access.

'Always-on', despite the dreams of Intel and others, remains a myth outside developed urban areas, and will remain so for years, until wireless networks are built out with sufficient ubiquity and capacity to support strong connections to almost any device in any location. In the long wait for that day, there has been parallel interest in enabling web services and applications to function more effectively offline.

Microsoft has hung back on this, and in the wake of the software titan spending $6 billion for digital advertising company aQuantive, clearly stepping into Google's core territory, the search giant is responding in kind and making its most aggressive move yet to break Microsoft's monopoly of the client desktop (or mobile) environment.

Google Gears is an open source technology for creating offline web applications. An extension of the browser, it "addresses a major user concern: availability of data and applications when there's no internet connection available, or when a connection is slow or unreliable," said Google in a statement. Gears will work with all major browsers and across Windows, Mac and Linux, and is likely in future to be a key component of Google's planned mobile operating environment, which is also likely to sit on top of various base OSs. Of course, Google has its eye on setting de facto standards, and will release a set of APIs to developers that can also be adopted by other software houses.

The first Google product to feature Gears will be Google Reader, which allows consumers automatically to track updates to hundreds of Web sites. Gears' biggest impact could be in developing regions, where poor or non-existent internet connections limit access to digital information.

The technology has been released to the open source community for testing and enhancement, but already key players in the open source and browser communities are rushing to pledge support, no doubt seeing their chance to take part in a Google ecosystem and so boost their own opportunities to chip away at the Microsoft machine.

Opera, maker of the most advanced Web 2.0-style browser currently available for mobile and set-top platforms, raced to endorse Gears, as did open source group Mozilla, which is working on a mobile browser too. These companies will hope that Google, in creating a software platform to rival Series 60 or JavaFX, will stop short of designing a whole new browser, but will instead - like Intel and Nokia itself - go with an existing open source option.

"Opera and Google share the common goal of making web applications richer and more robust," said Håkon Wium Lie, chief technology officer at Opera Software. "Developers have long desired the functionality and flexibility Google Gears can offer browsers."

Adobe, whose Apollo is also geared to so-called Web 3.0 (which adds a robust enterprise-class dimension to the classic Web 2.0 features such as collaboration and dynamic content), said it would make the Gears API available in Apollo. Together, said chief software architect Kevin Lynch, the products would help create a standard crossbrowser local storage capability. Apollo is an internet client that works on the PC or mobile device without a browser, gaining direct access to the hard drive so it can be used offline as well as over the internet. It combines Flash, HTML and PDF techniques and a raft of developer tools is already available.

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