Understanding Google Gears – The Basics

Last Updated on: January 28, 2023

Google Gears was released in mid-2007 and, as described by the big G themselves, “enables more powerful web applications by adding new features to your web browser.”. This is a slightly generic explanation, and the aim of this post is to show exactly what Google Gears does and how you can benefit from it.

Essentially, Gears (the official name, to reflect the open source nature) extends your web browser. You perform an install at http://gears.google.com/, which is available for most modern browsers. A website can then use the following features via Gears:

  • A local server to cache and serve application resources (HTML, JavaScript, images, etc.) without needing to contact a server
  • A database to store and access data from within the browser
  • A worker thread pool to make web applications more responsive by performing expensive operations in the background

But what does this actually mean, and what makes it good?

Offline Functionality – By using Gears, the application and data can be stored offline, and the user can perform tasks without an internet connection. Data can then be synchronised once an internet connection is available. A great example of this is Google Mail – with gears, you can view your emails, reply, send new, access your address book etc., and everything is performed once you get an internet connection. See also the to-do list application Remember the Milk.

Faster Sites – Gears can store files, data and code on a local web server, meaning your machine shares the processing power and reduces the need for data transfer. WordPress implements this well in the admin area, speeding up many tasks.

Quicker Searches – Full-text searching can be performed locally, meaning fewer server resources are used and quicker results for the user. MySpace takes advantage of this feature.

Threading JavaScript Code – On a more technical level, the WorkerPool functionality allows Javascript to be run in the background without affecting the browser. This essentially means that script execution is not stopped on the website while this Javascript is running, meaning a more user-friendly experience and hopefully the disappearance of the “A script is taking a long time to run…” dialogue boxes.

GeoLocation access – Google Gears can request the geographic location from the client (if there is a GPS device such as on an iPhone) or from the network information (IP address etc.). This is made simple for the coder and allows the web application to know accurately and efficiently where the client is located.

What else can Gears do?
Gears is still in Beta and is not recommended for public use yet (despite many Google Applications using the technology). Gears provides an interface between the website and the client’s machine, meaning that in the future, websites will, for example, be able to:

  • Encode video/audio locally
  • Send notifications to the user’s desktop (e.g. Windows XP bubbles or OS X Growl-style notifications)
  • Access files locally
  • Ability to resume file uploads
  • Use the client’s camera

Some important information
Google Gears needs to be implemented, which is an extra strain on lower-budget websites and applications. Also, the client needs to install an extension to their browser, meaning your typical user won’t have the software available. This means that at the moment, only hugely popular technical/professional style sites are implementing gears.

The popular Firefox plugin Grease Monkey, which basically allows you to use scripts (or your own code) to modify websites on the fly, can be used to implement Gears features even when the website hasn’t implemented it. See the Google article Gears Monkey for more information and a script for Wikipedia.

The actual name of this technology is Gears. Google renamed it from Google Gears to reflect the open-source direction of this project. Many people still refer to the technology as Google Gears, including me, due to the ambiguity of Gears.

What other web applications are using Google Gears?

Here are a few I know about:

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