MySpace Shows Facebook How It's Done: Google Gears To Power Messaging

The Google I/O conference in San Francisco kicks off today with a really welcome announcement: MySpace has integrated Google Gears into its messaging system, which will back up all messages to a user’s local machine and allow for very fast search and sorting.

This is the largest third party implementation of Gears and the first time a search and sort mail functionality has been made available on MySpace.

Google Gears (actually, starting this week Google will start calling it simply “Gears”) is mostly known as an open source project that lets third party developers allow for offline access to their browser applications. Applications like Zimbra and Zoho have integrated Google Gears in this way, as well as Google’s own Google Reader. (Update: Zimbra actually uses Mozilla Prism).

But in this case, MySpace isn’t that concerned with offline access (they haven’t turned the feature on yet). Instead, they are leveraging the framework to make their messaging service, which previously didn’t allow searching, sorting or any other basic organization techniques, into a much more useful feature.

Google Gears performs three basic functions that are available to developers via Javascript. Those functions are a local database (SQLite), a local server for caching objects such as images and web pages, and a thread pool that allows updates and actions to take place asynchronously in the background. MySpace has taken advantage of Google Gears by using the local cache and background processes to enhance a number of previously resource-intensive processes on the site.

The two main areas of MySpace that previously just used only Ajax and relied on server-side processing were the messaging inbox and friendslists. The previous behavior was that a user would click and then have to wait for the request to be received, processed, and sent back from the server. With a large list of messages or a large friends list, common tasks such as these were frustratingly slow.

By using Gears, MySpace takes advantage of desktop processing and the locally installed database to speed these actions up to the point where they perform like a desktop application. This also has the benefit of cost-savings for MySpace, as this processing work is moved off-server.

I’ve been testing the new feature for a few days on my MySpace page. Instead of scrolling through pages and pages of messages, users can now sort by date, from, status (read/unread) or subject. And, more importantly, users can also search the full text of messages. The results are shown instantly (think Outlook), without page refreshes.

170 million messages are sent per day on MySpace, says the company. Not all users will be offered the new feature right away. Any user with at least 5,000 mail messages in their inbox will be prompted with the option of installing Gears and using the new system. Also, any MySpace user that has already installed Gears will have the option of using the new system.

Hello? Facebook?

I’ve been complaining about Facebook’s messaging system, which suffers from the same problems as MySpace, since late last year. There’s no reason why Facebook can’t implement Gears, too, and fix most of the problems with their own messaging. But given the epic social networking wars between Facebook on one side, and MySpace/Google on the other (in all of its petty glory), it may be some time before Facebook begins to adopt open standards first pushed by Google. Perhaps someday soon we’ll see Facebook Gears, or something similar.