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The Frankston Challenge - Why You Need to Create Offline Applications

Create offline apps development tools

An offline apps essay by Dan Bricklin, CTO at Alpha Software.

This morning I went for a normal check up with a healthcare provider I hadn't visited in a few years. The receptionist handed me a clipboard with paper forms to fill out to "catch up" -- nothing pre-filled out. Luckily, I was given a very sharp pen -- the fields were often way too small (when you live in "Newton Highlands" you need a lot of room for "City"). When I got to the section on "Pharmacy" I remembered that that office had sent a prescription a previous time to the wrong location (same street and company, wrong city and address). To make sure this time, I needed the address and phone number. I took out my cell phone to look it up. One bar. Very slow and dropped connectivity. I found the address but gave up on the phone number. I saw across the room a little sign with "WiFi" written on it. I guess I could have gotten up and followed the info to connect to their wireless router, if I trusted it, but I was too lazy. I left the field blank.

Dan Bricklin discusses offline apps

Dan Bricklin, CTO of Alpha Software


This was a reminder of what I call "The Frankston Challenge". As Bob Frankston has written repeatedly over the years, we need to have ambient connectivity that works everywhere without a prior relationship or human intervention to get past sign-in screens. (For example, see Understanding Ambient Connectivity.) Yes, there was Internet connectivity where I was (in a normal office building in a major suburb on a busy street right near I-95/Rt 128), but it wasn't good enough or easy enough to answer a simple question quickly. For the laptops that the doctors and nurses used it was no problem — they had already keyed in the special codes. For a new mobile device walking into the office, it was trouble like waiting for an old dialup modem to connect or nothing.

In the world of the Internet of Mobile Things (IoMT) you want to be able to just connect. Mobile Things include smartphones, tablets, wearables, automobiles, and so many coming things. They move with (or on) you, or on their own. The connectivity environment around them changes. The Frankston Challenge is very real for them today.

For example, you can't, as Bob points out, require a pacemaker or wearable reporting info to doctors and other systems to be pre-authorized with wireless carriers and WiFi access points everywhere the person might go. You don't want to have to pull out a keyboard (and maybe a credit card) to authorize connectivity when you feel tightness in your chest.

This problem won't be solved overnight. Bob has been working constantly to bring this to people's attention. For me, though, I'm in the world of making systems for business people to build apps that run on tablets and phones that move around with the users. We can't wait. This means that we won't have reliable connectivity everywhere, even where you would expect it. We have to build our systems to tolerate loss of connectivity. A consultant may be visiting a client's retail site or factory, or a repair person out in the field fixing a pump or transformer. The apps they run that replace the paper clipboard with something better and more tied into the flow of their tasks must be able to run offline.

How Alpha Software is Helping Developers Create Offline Apps

We at Alpha Software have been working steadily to make disconnection-capable apps easier to build so that can be the default configuration. This is especially true for data capture applications. Not necessarily ignoring connectivity when available, but not becoming useless when it isn't. Disconnected support means your app continues to work offline without losing data or requiring users to have a reliable network connection.

"Offline is the most important and difficult mobile feature...and will be a consideration for nearly every modern application...Alpha Anywhere supports a very robust [offline] solution with complete transactional synchronization with conflict resolution."


A final irony. The office building where my doctor worked was the same one were my old company, Software Arts, had rented some space back in the early 1980s. It was across a parking lot from our main building. We used a centralized computer for timesharing to run our whole business. We had a very early Ethernet system installed to give "high-speed" connectivity to the terminals on everyone's desk. There was coax cable everywhere. (This was very early in the history of Ethernet and the IBM XT was just coming out.) To connect the "remote" office hundreds of feet away, we had a trench dug under the parking lot (and then paved over) to run cable to that other building. We had high-speed connectivity there. Today I parked within a few feet of that trench. Connectivity was still a challenge over 30 years later.
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About Author

Dan Bricklin
Dan Bricklin

Dan Bricklin oversees product and technology at Alpha Software. Dan has a storied history in the software industry and is known as the "father of the electronic spreadsheet." With Bob Frankston, he co-founded Software Arts, developer of VisiCalc, the spreadsheet program that helped launch the personal computing industry. His most recent product is Note Taker HD, a popular iPad notetaking app he wrote in Objective-C for iOS. Dan also developed in JavaScript the full-featured SocialCalc spreadsheet program for Socialtext and the One Laptop Per Child's XO computer. He also is known for the award-winning Dan Bricklin's Demo Program for the IBM PC. Bricklin is a Fellow of both the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer History Museum, and received the IEEE Computer Society Computer Entrepreneur Award for pioneering the development and commercialization of the spreadsheet. He is a founding trustee of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. Dan holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard.

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The Alpha platform is the only unified mobile and web app development and deployment environment with distinct “no-code” and “low-code” components. Using the Alpha TransForm no-code product, business users and developers can take full advantage of all the capabilities of the smartphone to turn any form into a mobile app in minutes, and power users can add advanced app functionality with Alpha TransForm's built-in programming language. IT developers can use the Alpha Anywhere low-code environment to develop complex web or mobile business apps from scratch, integrate data with existing systems of record and workflows (including data collected via Alpha TransForm), and add additional security or authentication requirements to protect corporate data.