Bad internet connections on the move or why web-only generally sucks

TL;DR Internet does still suck in most places, please make standalone apps for your products and services that work offline too.

An internet page through a bad connection

A web page view through a bad connection

A lot of software engineers seem to agree with the popular notion that all applications will be web based one day; I am one of them, but I am someone who thinks that won’t happen soon (not before 2020 anyway) for various reasons.

Going for full web based software vs native software (on phones, tablets but also on desktop OS’s) is less performant and, when you need to do a lot of productive work, just annoying. Even if the native software is not very well designed in all aspects; going from one task to another in a productivity optimised native app will just be faster to work with. From the app (mobile/desktop) design, development and user experience side, it is possible to really push the envelop when going native which is why almost all popular desktop and mobile phone applications are native. That is not why i’m writing this post however and (slightly) worse interaction is something I can live with. Although if I have to use something a lot, it starts to really get on my nerves (try the Elance app for instance…).

Most web sites/applications are written with using mostly server side code with a frontend in HTML, CSS & Javascript. Besides a bit of AJAX, sites and applications are generally not very resilient against bad internet connections. And why would they be; everyone has a great internet connection everywhere these days right?

I travel a lot these days; UK, NL, BE, PT, ES, US, DE and others and I always have a bunch of devices with me, including laptops, tablets and phones. People who adore and keep pushing web-only applications are usually living in dense regions like cities and many of the loudest proponents are in Silicon Valley or other tech areas. Obviously the internet  connection is good there. In the cities. A bit out of a lot of cities (Seattle, LA, London, NYC, Orlando, Madrid, Munchen, Faro…) the connection is (much) worse or does not work at all. Stepping a bit out of London, sometimes even the entire GSM signal is not enough to conduct phone calls on, let alone do any meaningful 3-4g work on. Around and even in Munchen I have a hard time finding a stable connection at all.  A top class business hotel in the center had paid internet wifi so bad that it wouldn’t even load Gmail properly. And this is not a one-off experience; it is common, very common in 2015 still. A normal web application would not really load, an AJAX web application would throw up all kinds of errors (Jira, Hipchat) while a modern web application, once loaded (or preloaded), will work fine. It amazes me that either people don’t travel at all or maybe do not use internet a lot when travelling and just shout ‘all can be web; it is fast enough!’ from their fiber glass internet connection equipped apartments… Not having access to internet is not even the biggest problem; a very unstable internet connection is as the latter is far more common.

When referring to a modern web application I mean applications which let you use all the functionality that could possibly be used offline, actually can be used offline. For instance, writing blog posts, commenting on something, rating something, registering worked hours, creating issues etc. Content that must be updated will have a warning that it is not up to date and you click / drag to try to refresh, or it refreshes when ‘enough’ internet connectivity has been detected.

When ‘the internet is back’, the data is synced with the backend and everyone can see what happened. This is a solution to resolve the bad or no internet issue and there are enough technologies to get this to work, like Meteor or PouchDB. They are quite new and that is something to be weary off, but client-server programming is not new (and has a lot of the same issues) so it’s definitely possible to get it working well offline.

It’s not only small companies who don’t have finances to create web applications like that either; the aforementioned Jira & Hipchat web applications have it and especially Jira should work offline. But they don’t even have an official native or otherwise mobile app.

Which brings me to the next point; you have to preload the web application to work when you are offline. That’s not very convenient; you probably thought ‘there will be connectivity everywhere! It’s JFK right?’ until the plane landed and you notice you couldn’t even download your cat’s homepage properly.

A solution which is web based is for instance the Chrome Web store which allows you to download a base packet of HTML5 code which runs when you click on it, even when offline. What happens after that depends on the creator of the application (as is always the case; unless you are using Meteor or something like that, it won’t automatically work offline).

Which brings me to the conclusion; if you want me (and many people I know with me) as long term client, you need to have a mobile app, preferably native, next to your web application(s) which can work both online and offline. I happen to pick airlines based on this, I don’t work with Elance anymore because of this, I pick products for internal company use but also personal use based on the quality of the web applications and availability, at least for key productivity tasks, of a solid mobile or desktop app, preferably natively written. I wish companies would look around more and notice that the largest landmasses of this earth do not have (stable) internet and that it is quite lame to not account for the large group of (travelling) people in those parts.

You want your clients to use your products as much as possible; you can make that happen by making sure there is a top notch experience on every device, under every circumstance. Take a lesson out of the Whatsapp book.

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