I just spent a little while getting caught up on a variety of sites with Google Reader. Reader is my RSS tool of choice. This isn’t all that special, except that I did it while sitting on an airplane.

Last night Google released the first “developer release” (alpha?) of Google Gears, and along with it Google Reader got a revision to allow you to go offline using Gears. The experience was pretty amazing. Reader works just as you would expect it to. You launch your web browser, go to the Reader URL and instead of the expected error since your not online, you actually get the site but in offline mode.

This is a first release for Reader using the offline capability so it’s a little overly modal (either offline or not) and some features are frustratingly unavailable, particularly marking all items read. To my surprise sharing items is available.

Google Gears, the technology that makes this all possible, provides a nice suite of features to make this all work. I’m assuming that the Googleplex is hard at work on making an offline version of GMail, it’s the most obvious next candidate. I did a little poking around the developer documentation for Gears and I was really excited to see that all the hooks are there for ‘sometimes offline’ applications. With a little bit of ingenuity we should see web applications that seamlessly go online and offline as needed. I’d love to see this in a number of tools — all the 37 Signals applications, WordPress, Google Calendar.

I think this is a big moment. The Internet is nearly pervasive, but there are times when it may be unavailable. The biggest net benefit of technology like Gears may be in making applications much more resilient to transient network failures — in addition to the offline experience.

It will be worthwhile to keep a close eye on this space.

Update: I used this on the flight back with a lot more unread items and it again worked great. Going offline took more time since there was more data. The lack of a mark all as read feature in offline Reader is a real pain though.

Update 2: I tried getting this going in Firefox on Vista and the installer fails. The Mac OS X Firefox install is a breeze and is just a browser plugin. The Windows install is a separate installer. YMMV.