Gmail and Google Calendar for Mobiles Gain Speed, Accessibility
Google released upgrades for the mobile versions of its Gmail and Calendar web applications Tuesday, adding features previously only found on its desktop browser equivalents.
The upgrades show speed improvements and offline features that are uniquely appropriate to the internet access volatility found on mobile devices. The updates also push the boundaries of what can be done in the mobile browser.
The first thing you’ll notice is that both web applications are now screaming fast. There are some new features, like a floating toolbar in Gmail that lets you archive or delete messages without scrolling all the way to the top or bottom of the e-mail. Calendar now lets you to RSVP to calendar events.
The changes should be visible to all iPhone and Android users, as well as iPod Touch users.
The real story behind the new upgrades is the offline access it enables, thanks to some emerging standards found within the draft specification of HTML 5. The technology makes functions like search, threaded messages and marking favorite messages possible even when your phone isn’t connected to the internet. In fact, these features are exclusive to the web app, making the browser-based version of Gmail more powerful than either Android’s or iPhone’s built-in mail applications — at least until Microsoft Exchange-powered push email or Gmail goes live, but that’s another story. The fact that these applications are accessible through a browser also enables better cross-device functionality, as more and more mobile devices are equipped with powerful web browsers.
The HTML 5 code offloads some of the data processing functions to the mobile phone itself, making the web app faster and making the data accessible offline. These particular functions are supported in WebKit-based browsers, which both Android and iPhone devices ship with by default.
The web app, therefore, will load even if the phone is in Airplane Mode or while you lose internet access in those pesky transit tunnels. However, while in offline mode, you’ll notice you won’t be able to browse very far if you haven’t stored the message or event in cache already on a previous view. This limited functionality makes offline access a possibility, but not particularly practical. Mobile “desktop” versions on Android and iPhone both allow you to download messages in the background while you perform other tasks on the device at the same time. In this regard, the iPhone’s native Mail app is unique to any other installable application you can put on the phone.
That said, HTML 5 functions blur the line between browser-based web applications and those installable through the proprietary app stores for Android and the iPhone — particularly when those apps depend on an internet connection to function. The line will be further blurred with the release of yet another browser-equipped mobile device: the highly anticipated Palm Pre. Palm’s WebOS applications are built natively on web technology, ensuring both Gmail and Google Calendar will work identically on the Pre as they do on the iPhone and Android phones.
You can play with the new functions by logging into Gmail or Google Calendar using an iPhone or Android mobile browser. The web application automatically detects the browser, so if you don’t see it right away, it just means Google hasn’t updated the particular server you’re accessing. Just try again in an hour or two.