By Craig Buckler

5 Reasons Why There are no Killer Offline Web Applications

By Craig Buckler

offline web applicationsTechnology that allows web applications to work without an internet connection sounds like a great idea. In general, it allows developers to:

  1. run processes on the PC to improve latency and response, and
  2. create applications that work offline and store data locally.

The technologies blur the boundaries of the web and the desktop. It’s a concept that excited everyone in the industry a couple of years ago and has now been adopted in HTML5. See my previous post: How To Create an Offline Web Application.

So why are there just a handful of mediocre web applications which use offline functionality?

Google has added it to GMail, and I suspect Chrome OS was a major reason for doing so. But it’s hardly a groundbreaking concept — offline email has been available for decades. Other offerings tend to be a random collection of password managers and speed boost widgets for systems such as WordPress.

Here are 5 reasons why offline applications have not gone mainstream:

1. Poor browser implementation

Although HTML5 is gradually appearing, offline functionality is immature and implementations differ. Until the technology is commonly available, developers must rely on browser plugins. Google Gears is the most well-known, but it’s not available on all platforms and development has ceased.

2. Additional development effort and complexity

Creating a web application which works online and offline is not easy. In some cases, an application could require two separate versions to handle the differences. That effort may not be worthwhile if the majority of users stay connected.

3. Ajax

The processing overhead is distributed if the server can offload work to the client. It’s also possible to send data in more efficient batches rather that full page loads. However, many good web applications are already doing that with Ajax. Response times can be fast without using offline-enabled code.

4. Security

Storing data locally should prevent many security issues and this is why it’s been used by several password managers. However, if you’re really concerned about security, why not use a desktop application which never connects to the web?

5. Few user benefits

I can understand the appeal of offline storage, but how many users do a significant amount of web-based work at a location with poor net connectivity? If they do, then it’s a simple matter of using an email client or a word processor rather than an online application.

The big advantage of web applications is that data is stored in the cloud. Offline storage may provide a safety net, but how often will that be necessary? If there’s one thing that we can be certain about — internet connectivity will improve.

Perhaps it’s too early but, for me, offline functionality feels like a technology waiting for an application. However, I have thought of one killer idea … come back tomorrow to find out more.

  • Nelson

    I think web applications will have its success in mobile devices, when all devices came with webkit enable browsers.

  • Nathan

    I think that there is one, and only one reason that there are no killer offline web applications. Web applications cannot ever be as rich and consistent in their interfaces as desktop applications. It’s simply not possible to create a web application that behaves in the same manner as the other applications on someone’s computer, let alone every single other application on the web.

  • i think the main reason really number 2 – the high development and maintenance costs associated with offline web apps. The return on investment is just not high enough.

  • FunkyDude

    Welp, there’s a lot of need for custom database applications at the moment. So having an offline solution isn’t actually such a bad idea, then maybe have the offline application backup to an online server when the client goes online. SQLite would be a good database solution since it’s file-based.

  • Because the whole concept is tautological!

    The only benefit that web applications have over desktop applications is that they’re on the web (hence the name!)

    An offline web application is just a less efficient, less capable, less accessible desktop application. It’s like a slow, painful evolution that took a decade to get exactly where it was; only now it’s knackered and de-motivated from the long, pointless journey!

  • Sorry, I meant “oxymoronical” not “tautological”

  • RyanSeddon

    That’s where the newly proposed DataCache API comes into play which works along side applicationCache and pretty much solves all the issues you’ve mentioned, albeit no browser yet supports it but these issues are definitely being discussed and fixed.

  • bruno

    Brothercake, if you tried harder you couldn’t be more wrong. The whole debate about “offline” web applications is silly enough. Why would you even use a computer without networking capabilities in work environment? Just don’t try to justify your response with words such as “security”.
    The best benefit that web applications have over outdated desktop ones is that they run trough browser. Browsers and internet have become part of the modern culture. Everyone use them, everyone understands them. Hence, a new user will have less learning curve with using a web app than a desktop one.

  • Niubi

    There’s just not really any need for offline web applications. I mean, it’s called a ‘web application’ so the whole concept is redundant! And when there’s so much easily accessed wifi and other forms of internet, it just seems even less useful. Consider whether DubLi’s app CINCH would work as well offline as on? I don’t think so.

  • You’re basically right, except for one large segment which you’ve left out – Productivity and extranet web applications. I love 37signals’ products, Remember the Milk (which has Gears) and such, but if I can’t use them on the road when I’m offline, it’s a pity.

    Sure, the one huge advantage of web apps is the web. But we’re far from world-wide, high speed, open and permanent connectivity. Meanwhile, lots of web applications could use some offline support.

  • @Bruno —

    Why would you even use a computer without networking capabilities in work environment?

    Do you:

    – commute, or spend a fair amount of time out of the workplace, and like to spend the time productively?
    – have meetings in cafes or other locations with no free wifi?
    – have meetings with clients whose policy forbids you access to their network?

    I do it just frequently enough that a decent bit of offline functionality would be excellent, but currently not enough that I can justify paying a big old telco contract for their expensive and crappy wireless intertubes.

    That said, I’m with mister cake: why put up with a gimpy web app when a desktop app would do the job that much better? (Yes, children, a desktop app can still connect to the web…)

  • Faisal

    You’re leaving one major benefit (especially in windows) is the ability to control the desktop via notifications, local caching, integration with other desktop tools such as MS office to trigger events like reporting using .net

  • Anonymous

    You have heard of Adobe AIR right? I make ‘killer apps’ in the AIR runtime all the time.

  • AIR is a framework that allows you to create desktop applications using web technologies. They work offline unless you add online functionality.

    While I’ve seen some nice AIR apps and examples, I’m yet to see anything that hasn’t been done before and is better than a desktop or online equivalent. Care to share some links to your killer apps?

  • sam

    Music/productivity apps + subways.

  • Harold24

    I’d say tweetdeck and twhirl were killer AIR apps.

  • @Harold24
    OK, but they’re really standard desktop applications with internet connectivity. AIR provides facilities for situations when the user goes offline, but how useful is that? Tweets are instant messages – having a send/receive later facility is a little pointless!

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