It’s the biggest knock on Google’s web-only Chromebooks, if you don’t count the trackpad: how can you use one on a plane? You can do more in a web browser than ever before, but in those places where there’s no Wi-Fi or 3G, you’re completely cut off from your email, documents, and even your basic calendar. The same goes for anyone who gives themselves over entirely to the Google Apps experience. Google finally has a retort – at least for savvy Chrome users.

Google lays out the process for installing and using Gmail Offline in an official blog post. It’s a bit trickier than just flipping a switch. First, you have to be using Google’s Chrome browser, or a Chromebook. Then you head to Google’s Web Store and install the Offline Gmail app. It installs, and it looks just like their Gmail icon, except it is blue. You click that blue Gmail icon, and you see a new interface for Gmail – new if you don’t have an iPad or Android tablet, that is.

Google’s taken their two-pane, tablet-friendly interface and repurposed it for offline use, using HTML5-derived storage space. And in a few limited tests, that works just fine. Don’t install it and wait for your next plane ride or rural experience, though – you need to load the Offline Gmail app, approve its request to store your mail offline, and, if you use multiple Google accounts on your system, click the account button (easy to miss in the lower-left corner) and give each account a bit of time to cache your recent mail. And if you wipe out your browser cache, you’ll (presumably) need to do the same load-and-wait maneuver to get your mail back in place.

With this Offline Gmail app installed, you will eventually see offline options for Google Docs and Calendar, but those apps are rolling out gradually. Check the “gear” icon while on these apps (normally used to access settings), and if you see an “Offline” link, you’re in business.

Offline access for Gmail, Docs, and Calendar isn’t actually new. In fact, all three apps previously had offline powers through Google Gears, a web plug-in that Google let the sun set on in favor of the more universally accessible storage offered in HTML5. It was available for more browsers (Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, at last count), but it had a lot of fine-grain settings and was easy to trip up.

This new offline Gmail is very simple, as signaled by the intentionally stripped-down interface – you either have some of your mail offline, back to a certain date, or you don’t. (I’m waiting on access to offline Docs and Calendar before presuming too much about their access; I’ll likely blog more about the whole offline suite here when I get it).

So offline access is back, but only in Chrome, and only after you install an app. It’s a good first step toward making the Google Apps platform a place where you can do nearly everything on the web, but not be totally useless when you’re far away from the cloud.

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