Mobile Apps go offline, next big move in the smartphone trend

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At a time when most startups in India are switching to a mobile-first model, a clutch of firms in Silicon Valley and India have moved on to the next stage — an offline-first app strategy.

Offline first refers to a mobile application-development strategy where the app’s most crucial features work even when internet connectivity is lost. Poor internet connectivity plagues all geographies, be it metropolitan cities or remote areas. While urban centres suffer from network congestion, remote towns at times get no signal at all, especially in developing nations in Africa and Asia.

“It’s becoming a big trend in Silicon Valley, not just in the emerging economies,” said Wayne Carter, chief architect of mobile at US-based Couchbase, whose product helps developers design mobile apps that work with or without an internet connection. Carter was in Bengaluru recently to address developers at a conference on how to build apps for an offline-first world.

Being able to work offline is dependent on the actual purpose served by the app.

For instance, HolidayIQ’s travel app allows users to store and download all information of their end-destination, so the phone continues to be smart sans the internet. Music streaming services such as Gaana, Saavn and Hungama allow songs to be locally stored on the phone. Gmail, on the other hand, gives an option to store the last few messages on devices for quick access.

“The real innovation is not in using the phone storage, but in a magical four-letter-word called sync,” said Chuck Ganapathi, founder of US-based Tactile, whose sync technology helps salespersons manage email, calendar, tasks, contacts, LinkedIn connections offline on the app.

Syncing data between phone storage and an app’s servers is something that all global and some local players use. Apple’s Mail, Calendar, iTunes, Gmail, Dropbox are a few examples of tech companies that keep the app running. These apps allow users to meddle with it, and reflect the changes when the connectivity comes back.

Tactile spent $10 million (Rs 64 crore) and three years to develop its sync technology. Google, Apple and Couchbase offer tools for designing apps for an offline-first world.

“Makes a lot of sense in India. Some enterprise tech companies that sell to small and medium businesses in India, do this well,” said Shekhar Kirani, partner at Accel, whose global firm has invested in both Couchbase and Tactile.

“We do a lot of thinking around offline usage,” said Hari Nair, founder and CEO of HolidayIQ, whose app also allows users to take a video, save it as a draft and upload it when data network is found. But how difficult is it to rethink mobile strategy for an offline-first world?

“They are fundamentally different architectural styles of development. It is like brick masonry versus a wooden house,” said Ganapathi.

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