Google Follows Its Mail Customers Offline

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Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) is tired of always being the away team. Now it wants to go home.

Google's Gmail is starting to offer email access and reasonable functionality, even when a user is offline. Folks will still need to adjust their settings and download the free Gears program that makes it possible, but once they're all set up, Gmail will have a local cache -- continuously updated -- of your email from Google's servers. In other words, if your Internet connection temporarily dies, you will still be able to retrieve old messages and write new ones. Naturally, you will still need to re-establish Web access for outgoing mail to actually get through, but it's a welcome new feature.

Google's Calendar offering is getting a similar experimental makeover.

Connectivity has always been the Achilles' heel of cloud computing. Whether it's companies turning to (NYSE: CRM  ) for enterprise software solutions or the growing popularity of Web-based threats like Google Apps, Sun Microsystems' (Nasdaq: JAVA  ) OpenOffice, and Zoho for Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Office, the trend is clearly about moving data out of your computer and onto a central server. Cloud computing makes it wickedly convenient to access your files from anywhere you can tap into a connection, but it's a drag when you're not online.

As Google and others begin to close the connectivity gap, does Microsoft stand a chance? Of course it does. The real question is if Microsoft will need to discount its premium prices, given the growing free -- or nearly free -- alternatives.

Google's move also raises the stakes in providing Web mail services. Gmail still has a way to go to catch up to its three largest email competitors -- Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL, and Microsoft's Hotmail -- but it's gradually closing the gap. Online mail is certainly not as lucrative as search, but it's a sticky offering that keeps users close to your portal.

The online competition is getting so hot that it's boiling into your offline world, too.

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Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't calling for a search engine search party, but he may as well. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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