As every hapless teenager stranded in a dank cabin in the psychopath-ridden woods can tell you, your cell phone is useless if you don’t have a signal. For business users, the stakes are just as high: Travel to a farflung corner of the world to meet with clients and “zero bars” is a distinct possibility. And God help you if you have to take a plane ride anywhere and aren’t lucky enough to get on the handful of jets with onboard Wi-Fi.
While being unable to make calls, send emails, or check the news is certainly an inconvenience, the problem is compounded if you rely on cloud services to actually get work done. Storing data online and running apps that rely on a live Internet connection mean you can abruptly turn into an unproductive layabout when wireless service isn’t available.
Hybrid cloud services have started to address the issue, and Dropbox has been leading the charge. Files stored via Dropbox are automatically stored both in the cloud and on your local machine. Changes made to one file are copied in the background when a connection is available, and synced up with all devices running the Dropbox software. Google Drive, SugarSync, and many other cloud storage services work about the same way.
That’s a start, but it only addresses the very beginning of the problem. A growing number of services are designed to work exclusively over the Web, and if you’re not connected, they simply don’t run at all. (Think Facebook.) Well then, why not enable these apps and services to work in offline, hybrid mode, the way Dropbox works? Evernote does it. So does Gmail; it doesn’t include all its features from top to bottom, but what it offers is good enough for most users.
Offline support is uncommon because coding this kind of software isn’t easy. There are myriad issues to consider: What happens if you change a file in two places before re-syncing? How do you manage the unavoidable data file differences between, say, an iPhone and a Windows 8 PC? And good luck when you bring multiple users into the mix. Imagine five offline users working on a single document simultaneously, then trying to sync en masse. Nightmare. Who wants to try to code all of this stuff themselves?
Well, with the new API releases the company put out this week as part of its DBX developers conference, Dropbox has told the developers of the world that they don’t have to. Without getting too far into the weeds, the new APIs mean that third-party developers can now use Dropbox to store program data instead of having to stash it on the user’s hard drive or build their own cloud service to store it. That means you’ll be able to work on a spreadsheet, draw a picture, or play a game on one device… then pick right back up where you left off on another, whether you’re online or off.
With 100,000 apps already supporting Dropbox in some fashion, this isn’t a pipe dream. Universal access to data from any device and robust offline support have the potential not just to revolutionize the way we work but to become expected, almost required components of any piece of software we use. As Dropbox CEO Drew Houston told TechCrunch, “Every app is going to be designed this way in the future and we wanted to get started on that now.” I can’t wait.
Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.