Late last week, Google made good on its promise to deliver offline functionality for its web-based Gmail, Calendar, and Docs apps by the end of the summer. Offline Gmail is now available to Chrome users, Calendar is rolling out offline options, too, and Docs is open to a small group of testers. I've tried out all three apps offline in their current versions, and found a few flaws, but also some nice features.Note: I tried out Gmail, Calendar, and Docs offline with my private Gmail/Google account during a trip to the Adirondacks, but the apps work pretty much exactly the same on the Google Apps platform. One caveat: your Google Apps installation must be migrated to the newer Apps platform, and your administrator must have enabled your access to the proper settings.
All three offline versions require that you install an "app" from the Chrome Web Store, which is not the same as installing an "extension" from, well, that same store. Once installed, that app gives your Chrome browser permission to store more information than the 5MB normally allowed in newer web standards. The next, and potentially last, step is clicking the gear-shaped icon in the upper-right corner of your Gmail, Calendar, or Docs page and choosing the option to set up offline usage.
For a lot of us, that can easily be the last step in having offline access to email, documents, and appointments. All three apps keep their offline data up to date in the background, without requiring you to manually sync up your account before you plan to jump on a plane or head to an area without web service.
When you're online and doing your normal work and browsing, your Google apps are checking in and grabbing your messages, documents, and appointments for offline use. It's not quite so automatic if you use multiple computers each day, but most laptop warriors only need to connect to Wi-Fi for a minute or two to get their offline Chrome apps synced up. When you pop open your laptop to find no Wi-Fi available, you can still open Chrome, click an app button, and see your stuff.
How much of that stuff varies from app to app, and depending on the volume of your account data. In my Offline Google Mail app, I can see messages dating back to September 2010, and my email traffic is nothing to sneeze at. My Calendar events reached back only to July 21, 2011 (that's apparently the case for everyone), which is a strange cut-off for the app using the least amount of data.
Docs, in the version I'm getting an early look at, backs up the 25 most recently modified text and spreadsheet documents, but in view-only mode. Both Calendar and Docs are read-only tools - you can look at events and documents, but you can't edit or create them. Editing is coming to Docs, Google says, but whether Calendar offers users the ability to create and then sync events remains unknown.
Gmail is another matter. When you're offline, you can read, compose, reply, forward, delete, archive, label, and otherwise work your inbox as you normally would. The main difference is in the interface: it is tablet-style and reminiscent of Outlook, with an inbox pane on the left and your selected message on the right (as previously mentioned). You can access multiple Gmail/Apps accounts offline with a quick account switch, and adding an account is as simple as logging in and then opening the Offline Google Mail app.
At the moment, then, Google's offline app push works well for those who unexpectedly find themselves offline and needing to access a crucial email, appointment, or document - especially if they're using a Chromebook. But the drawbacks are many: no creation or revision in Docs or Calendar, Chrome exclusivity, and, while not all that taxing, still a bit of setup and think-ahead needed to ensure what you'll need offline is actually there. It's just the first iteration of offline tools from a company that loves to revise and release, so here's hoping things get more seamless and less picky from here.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.