Despite the challenges, I believe that being able to offer offline access to your web apps is a game-changer because this allows users in every type of business, from large enterprise internal users to consumers of B2C services to rely on a web app for their everyday business and pleasure, without the concern that a network outage or lack of connectivity will cause them to lose their work or be unable to access critical data.
Offline access doesn’t just mean not having full access to a network, but it could be more nuanced. For example, a user on 3G (let alone 2G) may not want to spend time and precious data downloading a very large item such as a catalog, so in this case the user may well prefer an offline version.
In workflow management, for example, it is important that all workflow elements are followed and logged, and in many cases there can even be compliance issues around this reporting. However, with more mobile users with less defined work hours, there is no guarantee that the user will have access to the central system when completing parts of the workflow, so having reliable offline access can allow the user to continue working with a cached copy of the information which the finished workflow can be automatically updated later.
Also, we run into business processes all the time in the mobile world, such as the employee who needs to log his time sheet on a daily basis but is only able to upload to the central system on a Friday; in this case being able to complete the task but synchronize with the system at a later date can be very useful.
A similar situation could apply in task updates where a remote worker who has been called out to a customer site can log all the information needed to complete the task (including ordering spare parts or booking a return visit if needed) without having to worry about having reliable network access. Similar efficiencies can be built into time-sheets, project management reports and expense claims: offline access to the systems means the users can complete the reports when it is convenient for them to do so, without worrying about connectivity.
Offline access to systems is especially useful to sales professionals who need to be able to look up information such as price lists, past proposals and creditworthiness on the go. With offline access they can reliably use a cached copy if they are unable to get network access, and also need to be able to input new data into the system which they are with the customer; especially if it is for an order! At this point it is not just a question of efficiency but also of gaining the customer’s trust; the seamless experience that offline access helps to generate can be important in creating a perception of being a company that really has its act together.
Finally, in the B2C consumer world offline access is increasingly becoming a highly sought-after capability: consumers want to have data now, where they are and as easily as possible. After all, we are living in the future and we expect our technology to be magic. The most critical consumer apps for offline are those related to travel and retail; we are making more use of our smartphones as the boarding pass, the cinema ticket and the hotel booking, not to mention the local map. All of these things are far too critical to risk not having access due to poor coverage so the consumer will place great importance on having that information everywhere.
Co-founder of Alpha Software, Richard Rabins focuses on strategy, sales, and marketing. Richard also served as CEO of SoftQuad International from 1997 to 2001, when it owned Alpha. In addition to his 30 years with the company, Richard played a key role as co-founder, and served as president and chairman of the Massachusetts Software Council (now the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council), the largest technology trade organization in Massachusetts. Prior to founding Alpha, Richard was a project leader and consultant with Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), and a management consultant with Management Decision Systems, Inc. Richard holds a master's degree in system dynamics from the Sloan School at MIT, and a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and master's degree in control engineering from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has served on the boards of Silent Systems, Legacy Technology and O3B Networks, and is co-founder of Tubifi www.tubifi.com.
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