Updates to browser-based Gmail points to mobile trend

An upgraded mobile Gmail product could be part of a trend towards more Web-based mobile apps

Google has improved access to Gmail from Android devices and iPhones, pointing to a potential trend toward more Web and browser-based mobile applications.

Key to the updated Gmail, accessible through the browsers on iPhones and the Android G1 phone, are changes that let people use the service even while their mobile connections are flaky or unavailable, Joanne McKinley, a Google mobile engineer wrote on a company blog.

Users will be able to open recently read messages and compose new mails even when out of range of wireless service, she said.

"All this is achieved with aggressive caching and by leveraging new browser technologies, like HTML5 and Gears. The full impact of this new architecture isn't visible yet, but it will enable us to significantly improve performance and quickly roll out new features in the near future," she wrote.

Such developments could make browser-based mobile applications more common, a trend that could help solve the fragmentation issues that are slowing down application development in the mobile environment.

"The Web could be a universal access platform" for mobile applications, said Christy Wyatt, vice president of software platforms and ecosystems for Motorola, speaking during a panel discussion last week at the CTIA conference in Las Vegas.

Wyatt and others discussed the difficulties that developers have because of the many, incompatible mobile phone platforms. Developers currently must rebuild their applications to work on the various platforms if they want a wide potential audience. The Web could serve as an open development platform for applications accessible from any Web-enabled phone so that developers don't have to rewrite their apps.

While there are shortcomings to building Web-based applications for mobile phones - namely that mobile networks aren't always reliable and developers can't leverage all mobile phone capabilities in Web applications - the executives said those are not insurmountable problems.

Adobe's runtime environment provides offline capabilities so even when applications are Web-based they can run offline, said Danny Winokur, senior director at Adobe.

Eventually, essentially any application that now requires software on the device will be able to be run from the Web, said Sumit Agarwal, head of mobile product management for Google in North America.

"What apps can you say can't use the browser? Before, you didn't have access to location [from the browser], now you do," he said. "Maybe soon we'll have access to the camera and the speaker. It's not clear to me what aspect of the device you won't have access to in the browser."

Winokur agreed. While there currently may be performance issues, extension capabilities within runtime environments let developers plumb many of the capabilities of the device up to the runtime layer, he said.

"They'll get more sophisticated," said Jason Kenagy, vice president of product management at Qualcomm, of mobile Web-based applications. Kenagy works on Qualcomm's Brew application development platform.

The Gmail update should also make the application work faster when users do things like open a message, navigate and search, McKinley said. It also includes a couple of other changes such as a "floaty bar" that stays on the screen as users scroll through messages and that contains options to archive and delete messages.

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