Creating Offline Web-Based Apps On Your Desktop

The net is a wonderful place if you know how to use it properly. In recent years, a lot of the new web applications out there such as Google Calender or Google Docs have been focused on giving the user the full capabilities of offline installed programs but with the added benefit of being able to unify and share their information with other users in an instant. It’s just that with programs that run on cloud computing, you have to assume that you’ll be connected to the net all the time.

In the event that you’re cut off from the net, the applications that rely on an online connection cannot work. If those applications are important to you, that’s going to be a big pain in places you can’t imagine. A truth that I’ve discovered quite recently being cut off from the net for a week.

So for the past few days I’ve been experimenting on some viable alternatives to making sure that the online applications I rely on are still accessible to me even though I’m not actually online. For it to really work for my benefit, they have to fulfill 2 criterias.

  1. They have to act like separate programs with windows on their own giving me the ability to minimise, maximise and move them about the desktop layers when I want to.
  2. They do not require the installation of additional software than I need to run it.

Off the bat, this means I ignored the use of Google Desktop, Adobe Air or other widgets based programs. This is because these applications, while highly versatile required me to install and configure those apps. Having played with it before, a lot of those widgets are eye candy that remain attached on a desktop level. It would be hard for me to configure it so that I can call it above my other windows when I want it to, given that my web browser is always open and maximised.

This is where Firefox and a couple of Firefox add-ons come in, specifically Prism and Google Gears. Given that I already use Firefox as my browser, there isn’t any need for me to install any other program. To top that off, these add-ons are lightweight and can be configured for (almost) any site. The idea is remarkably simple though.

Prism is used to create the standalone window for whatever web application you choose. Think of it as a Firefox window of that specific application with it’s own icon on your Desktop or Startup Menu, but without the navigation and address bars and other things that bloat up Firefox. It’s a self contained window on its own right. Google Gears on the other hand allows certain sites to operate offline. While it is not supported by every site, a lot of the major sites I use such as Google Calender, Gmail, Remember The Milk and WordPress 2.6 and above are able to use Google Gears to operate offline. So the recipe for this mad concoction is as easy as a few steps and it only works assuming you use Firefox as your main browser.

  1. Install Prism and Google Gears for your Firefox.
  2. Navigating to your web application such as Meebo, Twitter, Gmail or Remember The Milk, covert the page to a desktop application using Prism (you can do this by going to Tools -> Convert Website To Application)
  3. If the site supports it, open it as your desktop app (you might have to log in again) and then sync it using Google Gears.

That’s it really. Now your application can run offline as in its own window. If you’re a productivity geek like me, you can even configure it to activate with a hotkey (using another awesome lightweight program called AutoHotkey) to call your applications whenever you want. It’s simple and it works right out of the box. The best thing about it is that for calenders like Google Calender and scheduled task lists like Remember The Milk, they work perfectly in their offline environment, allowing you to still use them without being online. This saves time and space rather than having you install bigger programs that do the same thing. If you have any further questions, just toss me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer it.

For setups like this, I recommend you play around with it. See which web applications work best for you offline in its own window. Then again, if you’ve gotten that far, you would have done so to begin with. After all, that’s what being a geek is all about. We might as well make the best of it and see how awesome it goes.

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