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No network connection? Mobile workers can stay productive offline

Mobile workers rely on the cloud and expect ubiquitous network connectivity, but there are ways to stay productive offline when Wi-Fi isn't available.

Mobile workers are spoiled. They demand connectivity anytime and anywhere, and when there isn't free Wi-Fi available to allow them to get work done, all hell breaks loose.

Two decades ago, only an elite crowd of mobile workers were lucky enough to receive a dial-up 9.6 Kbps modem to send files or emails to their company on a luggable computer.

Working in the cloudToday, as mobile devices transform into lighter and smaller devices, the mobile workforce expects to stay connected using Wi-Fi or cellular connections and cloud services. It's connectivity anytime, anywhere.

"The actual working environment is changing," said John Bartz, director of marketing at En Pointe Technologies, a Microsoft IT consulting organization based in Gardena, Calif. Whether at home or in the office, a worker is constantly connected to his or her device. As soon as they wake up, the mobile device turns on and they are checking their email. At the office, workers transition to another device, and when they return home, they may use another personal device and watch something from a tablet connected to the cloud, he noted.

As a result, network connectivity demand has increased significantly. A reliable network connection can even be considered a requirement for employees who work remotely.

"It's no different than someone calling that says, 'I don't have a car to come to work.'" said Raj Subramanian, chief information officer of the State of Ohio Office of Budget and Management. "For a new hire, [employers may ask], 'Do you have a reliable system and connection to [use for] work?'"

Indeed, connected notebooks and smartphones have become such a pervasive technology that connectivity is critical to a worker in and outside the office.

"On mobile [devices], you have this perception that everything you do on the device is network-dependent," said Chris Hazelton, director of mobile research at 451 Research, based in Boston. "A lot of [the] work people do on tablets is often connected. Corporate-owned tablets are often WAN-enabled."

Earlier this year, The NPD Group's Connected Intelligence research team of Port Washington, N.Y., published a report noting that cellular connections for tablets grew 48% in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the same time last year. However, cellular connectivity was only utilized in about 12% of the tablets in the U.S. 

"You will find that being offline happens less and less. Even on a plane you are connected a lot of the time," said Balakrishna Narasimhan, vice president of marketing and strategy at Appirio Inc., a San Francisco-based cloud service provider.  "The times when you're disconnected are fairly rare and [one] can supplement with some offline capabilities."

But when employees are disconnected, there are ways for mobile employees to work offline.

Lost connectivity vs. lost productivity

Lost connectivity can equate to lost productivity and a revenue hit, but it doesn't have to.

Luminex Corp. deploys Apple Inc.'s iPads for its ServiceMax field service application and relies on Wi-Fi.

"Our concern is when we are in locations where the iPad doesn't have connectivity," said Steve Nava, director of field service for the Americas at Luminex in Austin, Texas.

There are places where connections aren't available, so they must offer other ways for service workers to continue their job offline.

"When there is no coverage, we ask that when we get back to coverage, we can sync up documents. Likewise, [workers have to] pull down any work while you're out of communication," Nava said.

To combat the broken connection, some enterprise software and application vendors provide an offline client or implement a practice to ensure mobile workers can synchronize their data frequently with the company's servers whenever they are connected to the cloud. 

For example, desktop virtualization can help enterprises keep mobile workers connected if they use a disconnected virtual desktop infrastructure. This approach enables remote employees to continue working even if they are not connected to a network. Companies such as Moka5, VMware Inc., Citrix and others, support personalized virtual machines that deliver desktops remotely, but store files and user preferences locally for offline use.

Mobile workers with little or no Wi-Fi connection can also rely on third-party software that enables them to use their smartphone as a broadband modem or Wi-Fi hotspot to gain connectivity.

One can also deploy a USB broadband modem on a notebook and tether it to a smartphone, buy a USB broadband modem and associated carrier plan, or purchase a broadband wireless hotspot and carrier service plan so up to four or five devices can share a connection.

However, if cell coverage is spotty at best, an offline technology may be the best option.

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