Liam Green-Hughes

the challenge of the intermittently offline device

Catching the train into London every morning is a good way to be reminded that we do not live our lives constantly connected to “the cloud”. While home and business Internet connections have moved on from the pedestrian speeds of dial up connections, mobile broadband presents us developers with an interesting challenge. If someone is travelling, the speed of the connection may be fast, slow, something in between or even completely absent. The speed and availability of the connection will change constantly.

Improving the quality of connections and reducing the number of mobile “not-spots” whilst on the move represents a significant technical and business challenge for mobile operators. However there a lot of opportunities for developers to improve the experience of web users on the move, even with current infrastructure. Some services that are thought of as “being in the cloud” are adding offline capabilities that makes using them on the move a much better experience.

not a new challenge

The problem is nothing new of course and it is easy to forget that things have improved significantly over the last five or ten years. Back then having access to the Internet at all on the move was rare and maybe a restricted experience. Despite that there were some solutions to getting we content on the move. When Palm PDAs were popular one solution for getting web content on the move was a product called AvantGo. This pulled pages and content from the web when the device was attached to a computer and being synchronised.

Another solution that is still in use today for media files is being able to download podcasts before setting off. A piece of software called a Podcatcher can check for new episodes of a podcast and download them on a schedule meaning that a device can just play a local copy of the file rather than access content on the move.

moving to the cloud

Some services might appear at first to need an always-on Internet connection yet they provide features that help the user cope with being disconnected. Spotify, for example, lets users stream a wide range of music to a variety of clients. They also offer a feature where playlists of music can be downloaded for offline use which is very useful for travelling.

Video presents more of a challenge. Services such as YouTube and the BBC iPlayer are very popular. Video requires a lot of data, which means a decent connection would be needed on the move and a very generous data allowance would to need to be a feature of the mobile tariff in use. Fortunately both of these services are starting to offer facilities to download content before travelling.

Some BBC iPlayer apps allow users to download a local copy of content onto their device and keep it for up to thirty days. Similarly, some versions of the YouTube app include a feature where a user can choose to download the video files for their subscriptions or their “watch later” list while their phone is charging and connected to WiFi. These developments are great, especially as using mobile data can be more expensive that using a home WiFi connection. They also mean a user can enjoy a programme free from “buffering” interruptions.

what about websites and webapps?

A similar challenge exists for web applications. Using a cloud based application can offer lots of advantages over a local application, but if your connection to the Internet is unreliable this can cause major problems for your productivity! Services such as Google Docs have addressed this issue by offering some functionality to view and edit documents offline.

HTML5 could help power the offline functionality of websites. New features included in the specification enable web applications to use local storage and access local files making it easier to make sure users don’t lose their work when a network is not available. It also means that web apps and sites could download the data and metadata they need before the user choses to display it, a sort of pre-caching that could cover some of the gaps in coverage.

For web pages some solutions need not be so technical. Ensuring that an entire article can be viewed in one page is a great help. Splitting an article over lots of pages can be a headache for users on the move who might find they keep having to wait for network coverage before they can continue to read the article.

We’ve faced these challenges as part of our work on Electronic Programme Guide widgets which can work off line when embedded in a mobile app. As our usage of web based solutions grows and the opportunities they provide expand it is great to see these solutions emerge. Time spent travelling (when you are not the driver) is a great opportunity to catch up with content from the web so being able to mix offline and online usage is really useful. Without a doubt the travelling web user problem will be a challenge for many years to come!

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