A popular conception of the digital economy is that, whether discussing driverless cars and telematics, mobile apps, or the industrial internet, an always-on connection is essential.
However, this reliance can easily become a weakness.
For instance, what happens if a driverless vehicle needs to go off-road? Or when a consumer loses their mobile signal? Or when an industrial application is expected to work either in remote regions, or in an area with high signal interference?
There are more than two million mobile applications on the market today, with more constantly created for every situation imaginable; yet for a remarkable number, the slightest disruption in connectivity makes them worthless.
The impact of this on user experience, and ultimately on an organisation’s reputation and success, can be extreme.
For example, consider the difference between an app like Facebook, which offers almost complete functionality even in a connectivity vacuum, and Weight Watchers, which is useless when offline.
One of these will swiftly lose users to more innovative competitors. The next step for any business wanting to avoid this fate is to go “offline first”; ensuring that devices and applications can perform their essential functions anywhere, at any time, without fail.
Why go offline-first?
The benefits of applications that are able to work offline are obvious.
Even if a consumer application, such as video streaming, needs continuous connectivity to operate at its full effectiveness, any functionality available offline will keep its audience engaged and productive.
Yet other applications can be much more critical. For instance, healthcare applications should be able to monitor user status, provide warnings and reminders, and interact with other connected devices nearby regardless of whether the user is in a hot spot or a black spot.
Similarly industrial internet applications, whether on wind turbines, oil rigs or rail cars, will often suffer intermittent connections or large amounts of interference.
Yet both they and the people who maintain them still need to record, and act upon, data. For any organisation, the ability to operate as effectively offline as online will support a safer and more productive workforce.
Conversely, an inability to do so will harm the user experience and ultimately result in organisations falling behind their more adaptable competition.
Cutting the cord
When designing an application for offline-first there are still challenges to address. Most important is the application’s reliance on cloud-based data and processing.
Many organisations will be reliant on a central database to store and process data for an application.
For an offline-first approach to succeed, this database must be available at all times; so that the application has access to all of the data it needs, at any time.
At the same time, performance must not suffer. Much as consumers wouldn’t even use a simple messaging app if typing messages required lengthy syncing and processing with every keystroke, so any offline application has to provide instant output, whether used by consumers or by industry.
Any disruption to this performance could result in unhappy customers, reduced productivity, or a threat to health and safety.
Making the move
The only way to provide a truly offline-first application is for any database to rest on the device itself; so that there is no need for a connection.
Naturally, a device would have to be extremely large and powerful to house an enterprise-scale database; to the extent that it would no longer count as “mobile”.
However, a “light” database that only needs to handle specific data and functions for the application’s precise needs could sit directly on a device.
Devices as simple as a Raspberry Pi have proved capable of housing and running such databases, meaning a modern smartphone or other device will be perfectly able.
With this knowledge, organisations can design their applications to use these “light” databases; identifying the precise data and functions an application needs in order to still provide value.
An e-commerce application might not allow completion of payments without a connection, but it could still offer users the ability to browse and research what’s on offer.
Precisely the same applies for enterprise applications: such as Doddle, which uses devices ,to scan and process parcels in stores, removing the need for hefty on-premises equipment or connections and allowing stores to be set up faster, in smaller spaces. Similarly, GE uses offline-first to ensure it can maintain remote wind farms.
Equally important is considering when and how the application can sync its database with a central, online service: whether that happens whenever a device is able to connect, or follows a specific timetable.
Data is the key to the new, digital economy.
In order to succeed, enterprise’s applications should be able to make use of data at all times, not just when they have the luxury of a high-speed connection.
Businesses that cannot embrace cutting the cord will be handicapping themselves, and will never fulfil the full potential of the digital economy.
Sourced by Rowan Scranage, Couchbase EMEA VP