The consumer electronics industry has spent the past 20 years making everything connect wirelessly to the Internet — from PCs to TVs, cameras and speakers.
This includes, of course, the most wireless of wireless devices, the ubiquitous smartphone.
Your average smartphone connects wirelessly in three ways: via mobile broadband, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — all of which get faster, more reliable and more widely available all the time.
So why is there now a big trend in the industry to make apps work in places where no Internet connection is available?
A dream abandoned
Years ago, the dream was to blanket the world with universal connectivity. Entire cities would be blanketed with Wi-Fi. Continents would be dotted with cell towers. Geosynchronous satellites would provide fast Internet connectivity to everyone, everywhere.
Just look at the grandiose intentions of the Bill Gates-backed company Teledesic in the 1990s: “On day one of service, Teledesic will offer broadband telecommunications access for businesses, schools and individuals everywhere on the planet.” Teledesic went out of business in 2002.
In recent years, reality has set in. We are nowhere near providing Internet connectivity everywhere. So now, companies are wisely starting to do the next best thing: Making their apps and services work offline.
Over the past month, the industry has flooded users with apps and services designed to work without an Internet connection.
Making the world safe for going offline
Google this week rolled out better offline support for its iOS and Android Google Maps apps. It enables you to choose an area and then tap a button to download the mapping data to your phone, saving it for later use. Then when you’re out on the road, you can look at the map without going online. So you don’t have to worry about getting lost if you’re in a mobile broadband dead zone.
The Android version of Google Search has a new offline mode for the Google Now feature as well. Even without a connection, the Google Now cards will keep on coming.
The company has also been working hard to make its cloud-centric laptop platform, the Chromebook, as functional offline as possible. Google publishes a page listing all the things you can do with a Chromebook without an Internet connection — things like using email, adding appointments to the calendar and so on. Any day now, Chromebooks will have the ability to download and play TV shows and movies offline.
Facebook this month updated its iOS app with the killer feature du jour: an offline mode. The app now enables you to create posts without an Internet connection. They’re uploaded automatically the next time you connect. A similar Android app upgrade is coming soon.
Square is a point-of-sale product and service for phones and tablets that enables small companies and even individuals to accept credit cards and payments generally. With great fanfare, the company recently rolled out an offline mode, which enables companies to swipe credit cards without a connection. Once a connection is re-established, the payment is processed.
And then there’s offline connectivity.
When Internet access is unavailable, the only option is to just deal with it. Or is it?
A new technology in Apple’s iOS 7, called the Multipeer Connectivity Framework, enables connectivity in places where the Internet is inaccessible. It does this by enabling mesh networking, or peer-to-peer connections, by apps that are explicitly designed to support Multipeer Connectivity Framework technology.
Wireless mesh networks are made possible by the use of radio nodes that can both connect and be connected to by other wireless mesh devices, forming an ad hoc chain of peer-to-peer connectivity.
Depending on the app, two kinds of networks can be formed with Multipeer Connectivity Framework technology. One is an isolated network, which is formed when, say, 10 devices connect and communicate with one another but aren’t connected to the Internet in any way. The other is a chain of devices that connect to each other and back to an Internet-connected device, thereby bringing Internet connectivity to all of them.
Let’s say Janet, Steve and Mark all want to chat with each other. With regular wireless connectivity, each of them would have to be within range of and connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a wireless phone company’s cell tower. It’s a hub-and-spoke configuration, with each device on the network connecting to a hub of some kind.
With wireless mesh networking, Janet, Steve and Mark could set up their own isolated network or they could form a chain back to an Internet connection.
In the isolated network scenario, none of them have Internet access, but they can connect with each other in their own network via mesh networking.
And they could form a chain if just one of them had an Internet connection. Say Janet has a Wi-Fi connection but Steve and Mark are out of range but are near Janet — say, within 100 feet or so. In that scenario, Steve could connect to Janet and Mark could connect to Steve, and they could all share Janet’s connection.
One of the first apps to support the Multipeer Connectivity Framework is FireChat from Open Garden. FireChat lets people hold conversations, even if they’re in a wireless Internet dead zone. FireChat uses both the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios in an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet to create a mesh network.
Here’s a basic FireChat scenario: Let’s say you held a conference in a small hotel where the basement-level conference rooms didn’t have mobile broadband connectivity or Wi-Fi. If all of the attendees used FireChat, everyone would be able to get an Internet connection, even those in the basement. The devices of people mingling in the lobby would link directly to the devices of attendees on the stairs and in the elevators, forming chains of connectivity down into the ballrooms and hallways below. Note that FireChat is designed to extend the reach of the Internet, and requires at least one device in the chain to be online.
An alternative to FireChat, an iOS app called HelloChat, is designed to function without any Internet connectivity at all. The network is local only, and it’s useful for forming ad-hoc networks when connecting to the Internet is not an option.
To be very clear, neither FireChat nor HelloChat create connectivity generally. They just make it possible to use messaging or chat tools in Internet dead zones.
Wireless mesh networking has existed for years. But Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework is bringing it into the mainstream because it’s built in as a core feature of a major consumer operating system.
It’s clear that the mobile industry has finally given up on the fantasy that an Internet connection is available to all users at all times. Reality has set in. And in the past month, we’ve seen a new wave of products and services that help us go offline and still function.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.
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