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Working offline in the mobile era: No magic, but some hope

Until we have constant Internet connectivity, the best way to handle working offline is through automated synchronization.

The future of mobility is in the cloud, but when a connection to the cloud isn't available, it can be a problem without a simple solution.

Modern businesses, their information systems and mobile devices cannot be expected to hold all of the data that every user needs at any given moment, so the move towards a cloud-centric enterprise seems imminent. But we work in a world of real-time data sharing and collaboration, so anyone who is off the net is truly out of the loop.

We're still a long way from the promise of continuous Internet connectivity. The challenge is to determine what degree of offline operations is possible at any given moment, maximizing productivity even when users are working offline.

Working offline with data synchronization

Before the advent of cloud-based services, synchronization was the logical fix to the mobile-operations problem: The laptop, PDA, handset and tablet were, to quote a nautical friend of mine, dinghies for the desktop. The mobile device was not simply a terminal, but rather a full-fledged computer. As long as users remembered to synchronize the data cached on that device, synching worked pretty well.

The nautical metaphor survives even today if you replace “desktop” with “cloud.” Until the era of continuous connectivity arrives, synchronization will continue to be a valuable tool, and it will become even more automatic. Services such as iCloud offer automated backup, so it’s likely that this approach to working offline won’t disappear anytime soon.

Working offline with local apps

Local apps can provide a high degree of functionality even without Internet connectivity. IT can build automatic caching and related data management into applications, which eases app synching and minimizes opportunities for error. Mobile information management tools create secure sandboxes for enterprise data that are perfect for working offline. If we must operate offline, we can at least do so with some degree of security, integrity and automation.

The offline challenges of collaboration

When it comes to applications that depend on collaboration, things can get ugly. Editing shared files and accessing shared databases have become standard in customer relationship management, field service and many other applications. But this is also where the magic runs out. When you're working offline, you can't do any sharing, and it’s as simple as that. Again, the answer is automated caching. It’s vital to check the degree to which any of the options you're considering provide this capability. And any decisions made on cached data require some second-guessing, just to make sure obsolete or bad data isn't moving across the organization or to customers.

Sadly, the only real fix for the offline problem is in increasing wireless wide area network coverage and incorporating Wi-Fi offload to provision the broad indoor/outdoor coverage and capacity required to make "working offline" obsolete. The anytime/anywhere nature of wireless and mobile is of little value when service isn’t available, and our computing and communications options are severely limited. Carefully examine the offline capabilities of your applications and databases, and look at any automation that is available to minimize error and maximize productivity. And if there’s a wizard out there with that seemingly-magical solution in the interim, please give me a call.

This was last published in September 2012

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One of the other problems with collaboration apps that work offline is that you can't see updates to the threads while you're offline. For example, Google Docs supports offline 100%, complete with comments. I can access a doc offline, I can see comments.. I can even add comments. Then when I reconnect, it merges in my comments with everything else. Problem is if other people commented in the meantime, I might look like an idiot because my comment was merged back in out of context.

My point is that even if the app TECHNICALLY supports offline sync, from the PRACTICAL standpoint it may not be (or may never be) possible. The only solution is like you mention.. more wireless, less offline. :)
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Vendors seem to assume that web access is always there and always unlimited - which leads to a lot of frustration as an offline or badly connected user. At Repstor we are making collaboration and content systems available like Outlook email - fully featured on or offline, without the user having to think about network connections. Multi-user updates are still an issue - but synchronization is getting better, and these can be managed. The real key is keeping it easy and pain-free for the user.
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