August 3, 2010, 11:00 AM ET
All Things Google: Using Gmail and Google Calendar Offline
The Internet is a wonderful thing. It brings us cats, comics, and rainbows. But it also brings us tools, services, and applications that are accessible from anywhere and on any computer. When you're using a web-based email service, it suddenly doesn't matter that you're traveling for ten days and away from your own computer. You can just go to the website using any computer that is connected to the web, and you'll be able to get to your inbox. You don't have to worry about configuring the device or installing software--although you could certainly use portable applications to run the browser of your choice. In this realm of web-based services that are not dependent on your desktop but instead upon the cloud, Google is perhaps king. As we've discussed previously, Google provides tools that allow you to read your preferred RSS feeds, manage your to-do list, do calculations, and get all of your email (even the non-Gmail email!) while remaining conveniently device agnostic.
Being able to get to your email on any computer is incredibly convenient. But what happens when you are on a computer that doesn't have Internet access? Especially when traveling, it can be hard to get on a network. Those who use desktop-based applications like Outlook or Thunderbird might begin to feel smug when those of us who have trusted all of our email and appointments to the cloud suddenly find ourselves without access to it. Fortunately, Google has thought ahead about this problem, and with less than five minutes' work you'll be able to access your Gmail and Calendar whether you are online or not.
To make your Gmail available offline, start by clicking on "Settings" in thse upper right corner of your screen.
From there, click on the "Offline" tab.
You will then see a number of options. The most important one, of course, is to choose "Enable Offline Mail for this computer."
There are other options for how far back you want your mail archive to go as well as the ability to download all of the messages that have particular labels. (See what George and Amy have had to say about Gmail labels in the past.) You can see that I make sure to grab, among other things, all of the messages that are starred, as well as those that are related to the special issue of a journal on steampunk that I'm co-editing. While you can set your "recent message range" to whatever you would like, Gmail will make suggestions for how long it should be for optimal performance. Once you've arranged things as you like, you simply click "Save." You'll be sent back to your inbox, but be prompted to install Google Gears.
Google Gears is a small browser plugin or standalone executable file, depending on your operating system, that, according to its website, "add[s] new features to your web browser." Within Gmail, Gears allows your computer to download copies of your messages to your hard drive. It is these copies that you will be able to access when using Gmail offline since, logically, if you do not have access to the Internet, your computer cannot get any information from it.
Clicking on the link to install Gears will take you to the stand-alone Gears web page.
Simply click "Install," agree to the Terms of Service, and then run the installer. You will have to restart your browser once this has happened. When the browser starts again, Gmail will let you know that Gears has been installed. It will then begin to sync your mail and will inform you of how much the process has accomplished.
You can close this update box and it will continue to sync, which is indicated by the spinning green ball. When this sync has finished, the green ball will be replaced with a green check mark.
You will also be given the chance to create a desktop shortcut to your online mail.
Doing this is not necessary, as you can simply point a browser to Gmail when offline and you'll be taken to your inbox. But it might be nice to have the shortcut.
And speaking of inboxes, what you'll see when your offline is exactly the same as when you're online. The only perceptible change is that you will now have an Outbox added to your left-most navigation column, which is where "sent" messages go when you're offline.
When you're online again, the messages will automatically be sent.
Making your Google Calendar available offline is even easier than Gmail. Simply click the "Offline" in the upper right of the screen.
If you haven't installed Gears, you will go through the same steps as above. If you have installed Gears already, you will simply click to give it access to your Calendar. Gears will then begin syncing. By going into Settings, you can choose which of your calendars or the calendars you subscribe to to make available when you're offline.
That's all there is to it. Now you will not only be able to check your calendar on any computer in the world, you will also be able to check them while you're unconnected to the Internet. Feel free to tell Outlook users to wipe their smug grins off their faces.
Multiple Accounts and Computers
Many people have Gmail accounts, and more are getting them as more universities incorporate Google Apps for Education. If you have more than one Gmail or Calendar account, you will have to set up offline access for each account. Once you've got Gears installed, however, it's simply a matter of telling the account to start caching your information. And that should take about 15 seconds.
Also, if you're fortunate to have more than one laptop that you use, you also need to note that you will have to install Gears on each computer and activate each account on each computer. You can of course install Gears on computers that are not mobile, which can act as a sort of backup of email and calendar, in case your Internet becomes disabled. But in general, this form of offline access is only something that mobile users will need.
It's worth mentioning two things. First, Google Gears is not available for every browser. In particular, it does not run on Safari or Chrome on Macs that are using the Snow Leopard OS (10.6). Second, it bears mentioning that as of February of this year, Google Gears has stopped development. Instead, Google is putting its resources into developing applications and services that run on HTML5, the next major revision to the HTML standard. But for the meantime, it works and it works well.
What's your experience using Google's offline services? And more importantly, how do you access your important materials when you're offline?
[Images by Author]