Google Gears = Offline Gmail = Killer African Web App

February 2, 2009

Earlier this week with little fanfare, Google enabled browser based, offline access to Gmail.  While this is exciting for all of us who who have long yearned to ditch our desktop email clients, the ability to now access webservices like Gmail, even when we are offline, has enormous implications towards improving the way people living in Africa will now be able to access the Internet.

While things are rapidly improving, connecting to the Internet in Africa can still be a painfully slow experience in most places – the result of over-shared bandwidth, poorly managed backbones and the high latency of satellite jumps.  All this contributes to a very unstable connection, one that handles things like Ajax requests poorly resulting in a lot of time outs that plague many Web2.0 applications.  It’s clear that many modern web apps weren’t designed with African Internet conditions in mind.

Offline Gmail is made possible by Google Gears which stores a local cache of messages behind the scenes when connected.  This enables users to access a Google Gears enabled website like Gmail (Google Docs now works offline too) through a web browser and experience a similar web experience to if they were online.

While having offline access to one’s webmail is a huge benefit on its own,  the emergence of Gears enabled sites is exciting for Africa for a number of different reasons:

To access Gmail when you are offline, you will need to enable offline in your Gmail Lab settings and have the newest version of Google Gears installed.  Once enabled, Google Gears will begin an initial sync syncing approximely the last two weeks of your email.  Depending on how popular you are and the speed of your connection, this could take from 5-15 minutes.

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