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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Google Inc. has introduced a way to move its online software applications off the Internet, hoping the flexibility will encourage more people to use the free services and extend the company’s clout beyond its ubiquitous search engine.

The Mountain View-based company unveiled its the new tools, called ”Google Gears,” to kick off a series of software development conferences being held Thursday in 10 cities around the world. Google is expecting to host more 5,000 developers, including about 1,500 in Silicon Valley.

By installing a plug-in into Web browsers, Google Gears opens an offline door to software programs that until now have been inaccessible without an Internet connection.

That will change with Gears, which will enable users to synchronize their computers with online applications and then use the programs offline.

”This fills a gap for us,” said Jeff Huber, a vice president of engineering at Google, on Wednesday. ”The Internet is great, but you can’t always be plugged in to it.”

Initially, only Google’s ”reader” application for collecting the latest content on blogs and other Web sites will work offline, but the company plans to add other programs to the mix, Huber said. He cited Google’s e-mail, calendar, word processing and spreadsheet programs as logical candidates for offline access.

If word processing and spreadsheets become available offline, they could become even more viable threats to Microsoft Corp.’s Office software suite, a major moneymaker that traditionally has been installed directly on computer hard drives.

Although Google has tried to depict its applications as a supplement to Microsoft’s dominant programs, it is no secret that both companies are trying to undermine each other as they jostle for the loyalties of computer users.

Google signaled its determination to become a bigger player in the software market earlier this month when it embraced ”search, ads and apps,” one of its new themes.

The push is part of Google’s effort to develop new revenue channels beyond the search engine that accounts most of its profits, which soared to $3.1 billion (euro2.3 billion) last year. Although its basic applications are free on the Web, Google recently began selling expanded versions to companies.

Unnerved by Google’s rapid rise during the last nine years, Microsoft has been investing heavily in developing its own search engine while also trying to develop an online platform to promote its own software. Most recently, Microsoft agreed to pay $6 billion (euro4.5 billion) to acquire online ad service aQuantive Inc. in a deal driven by Google’s plans to buy DoubleClick Inc. for $3.1 billion (euro2.3 billion).

Google is hoping many of the people attending its developers conference will use the Gears tools to adapt their own applications for offline usage. Some of the developers already have contributed to the online applications that work with Google’s maps and a version of its home page, called ”iGoogle,” that lets users customize what shows up on each visit to the site.

”We believe strongly in the power of the community to stretch this new technology to the limits of what’s possible and ultimately emerge with an open standard that benefits everyone,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a statement.

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On The Net:

Google Gears: http://gears.google.com

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