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Google is to give users access to Google Apps offline, meaning they'll be able to continue working if their internet connection falls down.

Over the next few weeks, Google will start to enable users' accounts one at a time and it'll start with Google Docs. Offline access to Spreadsheets and Presentations will follow later.

Users will know if they are enabled to work offline by the inclusion of an offline logo in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

It works thus: while users are online, Google Apps continually saves a copy of the document to the user's hard drive. When the user goes offline, their work from the latest version saves to the hard drive. When their internet connection is restored, the document on the hard drive syncs with Google's servers so the latest version is also stored online.

Of course, offline functionality will also be useful if users deliberately disconnect from the internet, for example, to change from one network to another.

Google software engineer Philip Tucker explained Google's reasoning on its blog: "Cloud computing is great, but you need the cloud to make it work. On an airplane, on the shuttle commuting to work, or at home when my cable modem goes down, I want to work on my documents."

Well, this must be his lucky day. It shouldn't turn out too bad for Google, either. Giving users access to their documents without an internet connection gives the company a much stronger proposition against Microsoft's pricey Office portfolio.

It also takes Google into competition with Zoho, which announced in August last year that its hosted word processing application Zoho Writer would be available offline.

Both Zoho Writer and Google Docs' offline capabilities are based on Google Gears, an open source browser extension. Users must install Google Gears to get the offline functionality.

Perhaps concerned by growing interest in hosted applications, Microsoft is toying with a few ideas. It is currently working on project Albany, thought to be the codename for an upcoming suite of scaled-down hosted applications.

It's also working on Office Live Workspaces, a portal which allows users of MS Office documents to share and collaborate online. ®

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