How Important is Offline Access, Anyway?

In today’s world, you’re never too far from an internet connection. In developed countries, broadband access is available in more places than ever, and even poorer countries have internet cafes sprouting up left and right. Modern web workers and business travelers even take extra precautions to maintain always-on connectivity – packing air cards in their laptop bags or buying laptops that already have built-in EVDO access.

Despite the broad availability of internet access, it’s the dead spots that have been pushing forward the need for offline access to web apps. For how can a web office suite like Google Docs or Zoho compete with desktop software if they become unusable when the internet connection disappears?

In the short term, products like Google Gears, a browser plug-in that takes web apps offline, are a necessary evil, bridging the gap between desktop and web -nothing more than a transitional piece in the desktop to cloud computing move.

The offline component of Docs is clearly designed to make the move from desktop suites to web apps more comfortable and less off-putting for those accustomed to the stable, always available nature of their trusty desktop programs.

However, by focusing on an offline web, one has to wonder if this is really progress: if we wanted an offline word processor, well…don’t we already have several of those available already? Shouldn’t a product like Google Docs be more focused on what makes them unique in the office suite space instead?

Besides, going offline isn’t easy – which is why you don’t see many other web 2.0 developers taking their web-based startup to the desktop world. Additionally, offline apps aren’t nearly as good as their online selves: As Harry McCracken wrote on a Sunday night blog post on PC World, “No current Gears-enabled app is anything like its full-blooded self in offline form–and since most of them are stripped-down compared to traditional desktop software even in their online versions, that means the offline ones are barebones at best.”

It’s true. When you go offline with Google Docs, you’re missing out on one of the features that makes their suite worthwhile – real-time collaboration.

For obvious reasons, SaaS apps, like Google Docs, have trouble in a disconnected world. And while this problem might be a deal-breaker for some people now, it won’t always be the case. Before too long, being offline will be the exception – even airplanes have started offering internet access – not the rule. And who knows what Verizon’s spectrum win will bring a few years down the road?

So, yes, offline access is important now, but not as important as a few years ago, and certainly less important with each passing day.

Hopefully, companies like Google and Adobe and others focusing on providing offline tools, won’t get too sidetracked in their need to compete with the desktop world since they would only be perfecting what will soon become an infrequently used feature.

Instead, the focus for these tools should be on the features that only an internet-connected program can offer, things like real-time collaboration or Docs’ GoogleLookUp feature. These will be the driving forces to prompt mainstream use of online suites, not the fact that they work sans internet.

Maybe Google Gears isn’t backward progress exactly, at least not today, but it’s important for these web companies to keep their priorities straight: offer users amazing features they can’t get in an offline program, then worry about fighting for desktop space.

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