A World Offline

Loadshedding has hit South Africa in a bad way. Interruptions to electricity has disrupted businesses and resulted in unanticipated cost increases from those who have had to find alternative sources of electricity. 16 years ago, it was unimaginable that we would have some days with 11 and a half hours of no electricity on a regular basis. Personal and corporate routines were formed on the presupposition that there would be a constant and reliable supply of electricity. Yet now, if one’s area timetable ushers in darkness at 8pm, then for many it is an inconvenient early bedtime.

Just as electricity was a presupposition of many businesses and personal routines, a constant and reliable internet access has been a presupposition of many software applications built in the recent past. 20 years ago, most software was built on the assumption that there would be no internet connection. Today, with fast and ubiquitous connections through mobile networks and fibre-optic cables to homes and businesses, internet is assumed. Except, it isn’t always there.

Recently, on a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, I opened my Proton Mail app on my phone. With flight-mode enabled, when trying to open an email that I thought had synced to my device, I was presented with a blank white screen. My Gmail app on the other had responded better by loading a past email from memory. Similarly, when loading the News24 app to read the latest breaking discovery about Thabo Bester and Dr Nandi, I was informed that I am “offline”. Yet, on the other hand, when loading the ePaper of the Ugandan Daily Monitor, it could load because it had been pre-loaded before the flight.

It’s not only on flights where there is a risk of non-functionality of our software applications. In many politically fragile contexts where there is a high risk of unrest, governments have instructed internet service providers to shut off the internet for their customers, leaving many businesses without the ability to perform even the most basic of functions like creating a receipt for their customers.

Software creators would do well to create meaningful offline experiences for the applications they create. As internet speeds and web browser capabilities improved, many creators opted to deliver functionality through the browser instead of downloaded desktop applications. And even for those who have delivered through mobile applications, the apps have been created in such a way that the required data is stored only on a central server in another part of the world, instead of locally on the user’s device which would allow it to function if connection to the server is not possible.

A behaviour change that the always-online assumption has brought about is the expectation of real-time data at your fingertips. An example of this is that 15 years ago, when faced with a problem, a software developer’s first port of call would be the lengthy documentation of the technology they are using consumed through either a book or a digital library shipped on CDs. As you can imagine, this would result in slower resolution of the problem, but deeper insight over time, leading to quicker problem resolution later. Now, a quick google search can lead one to a quick resolution without the depth understanding, leading to an increased dependence on the the instant tools. A similar thing has happened with how people consume news, where in the past longer form content resulted in deeper understanding. Today, everyone knows one line highlights of everything but depth of less.

A final benefit of an offline approach would be a great cost savings for users of applications. It would be great if between wi-fi zones, one could disable the use of their mobile data on their phones and still have a decent degree of use of their phones. Plus, it would take away the constant temptation to swipe down to refresh on whatever the latest social network is that purports to be the Twitter replacement.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash