Offline Gmail: a Google FAIL

Benoît de Boursetty (Google+)

Google has re-introduced its offline functionality for Gmail and Google Apps. And, oh boy, it's a mess. I seem to be saying this a lot recently, but it's as if Google has stopped caring about what its users actually need. Instead, it's running headlong into a project that doesn't have user requirements at its heart. Allow me to explain, in The Long View...

A few months ago, Google withdrew its offline support for Gmail. The reasoning given was that it relied on a plugin called Google Gears, which Google had stopped supporting. The idea was that offline Gmail would now be supported using HTML5's Web Storage interface. The wrinkle was that the code to use the new method wasn't quite ready, but we were faithfully promised that we'd see the feature re-appear in Gmail in a few months. Well, that time has come, but the result ain't pretty. Yes, I have a bone to pick with Google today.The company's really messed this up. Why do I say that? Read on for my top six reasons...   1. Why disable the previous offline functionality before there was a replacement ready? Yes, I know Gears was officially End Of Life, but that doesn't mean the code magically stops working. Getting your customers hooked on a piece of functionality and then yanking it away was cruel and unusual.   2. Now it only works on the Chrome browser, which is a kick in the teeth to everyone using Firefox, Safari, and (gack) IE. Yes, I know Chrome is Google's baby, and Web Storage is kinda new, but that's not my problem, Google. I'd even understand if it didn't work quite so well on other browsers, but this smacks of a childish bait and switch tactic. Google's vague promises that it "look[s] forward to making offline access more widely available" only strengthen that impression.   3. The user interface is different, which isn't at all what we were expecting. The great thing about the old Gears-based offline functionality was that it was almost transparent; it used the same UI as regular Gmail. I'm not one of those "Who moved my cheese?" people who moans and complains every time Facebook changes the font size, but this isn't just a slightly different UI, it's completely other. In fact, it's basically the same web UI as used on iPads and other tablets. And therein lies the root of the next problem...   4. There's functionality missing, which is just the icing on the cake of my complaint litany. For instance, let's say I want to, oh, I don't know, select all -- can I do that? Nope, I have to risk carpel-tunnel to check each message. In practice, this actually means I now have to run two Gmail clients. One to get actual work done, and one to work offline. Ridiculous.   5. There's no control, unlike the Gears-based client, which allowed me to control how much data it synced, and which labels it chose to store locally. In the new client, who knows how much it's stored? I certainly don't Not only can I not tell it how to behave, it doesn't even give me any sort of visual indication whether a message has been saved locally. To add insult to injury, the screen shot accompanying Google's announcement includes what seems like an icon to control the synchronization, which doesn't actually appear in the released version!   6. Speaking of the announcement, Benoît de Boursetty, Google's Product Manager for the, uhh, product, does absolutely nothing to preempt any of these complaints. These issues should have been staggeringly obvious to anyone who gave it a moment's critical thought. Not to Monsieur de Boursetty, though. Oh no, it's all about "seamlessly transition[ing] between on- and offline modes," and the "great feeling to be productive from anywhere, on any device, at any time," and how Google is "pushing the boundaries of modern browsers to make this possible." What's that? I should be grateful? Give me a break. Enough with the smug, we-are-Google-and-we-know-what's-best-for-you shtick; can't I just have my old Offline Gmail back?  

Agree? Disagree? Want me fired? Leave a comment below...

Richi Jennings, blogger at large

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. As well as The Long View, he's also the creator and main author of Computerworld's IT Blogwatch -- for which he has won American Society of Business Publication Editors and Jesse H. Neal awards on behalf of IDG Enterprise. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: TLV@richij.com. You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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