It's taken more than 18 months in development, but Google is finally rolling out an offline mode for Gmail that lets you work with your email while you're not connected to the net.
"Even if you're offline, you can open your web browser, go to gmail.com, and get to your mail just like you're used to," engineer Andy Palay wrote in a post on the Gmail blog. "Our goal is to provide nearly the same browser-based Gmail experience whether you're using the data cached on your computer or talking directly to the server."
Actually, it's not quite that simple. The offline mode is part of Google's experimental Labs section, so you'll need to enable it in that section of your Gmail options. You'll also need the Gears extension installed. And even then you'll need to pray to the Google gods, since Google often takes days or weeks to make new features available to all users.
Offline Gmail synchronises messages in the background when you're connected, and automatically switches to working with the messages stored on your hard drive if a connection is lost. Outgoing messages are queued for sending next time you go back online.
There's also an interesting "flaky connection" mode for use if your Internet access is unreliable, which works with the local cache but continues background synching when possible. Palay offers the example scenario of "borrowing" a neighbour's Wi-Fi; my immediate thought was "Optus 3G".
Regardless, working offline will also require plenty of desktop storage space. One of Gmail's key attractions is its mammoth storage options — free customers get at least 7GB of storage. At least hard drives are cheap these days.
Ever since Google first launched Gears in 2007, adding an offline feature to Gmail has been the obvious killer application to drive uptake of the Gears extension, which gives Google a much more direct presence on the desktop and positions it as a competitor to Microsoft's longstanding OS dominance.
With a version number of 0.1, it might be some time before the feature works smoothly. "Offline Gmail is still an early experimental feature, so don't be surprised if you run into some kinks that haven't been completely ironed out yet," Palay wrote.
As well, some labs extensions within Gmail never graduate to the standard product. Gmail itself is still tagged as a beta product, despite having been operation since 2004 and including an optional paid hosting service.
Google isn't the only online messaging provider experimenting with Gears. Myspace also offers an option for users to store messages locally using Gears for faster access and searching.