The Offline Hole

42-25550883In our rush to be crushed in the infinite singularity that is the Amazon cloud, where super-connectivity and collaboration reach densities previously unimaginable, there’s a bit of a problem on the event horizon. What was once often a design consideration is now becoming the exception, and among the elite who are always within the confines of a 4G warp bubble universe 705 meters in diameter, the mere thought of it might seem ridiculous. Yes, we’re talking about that place that is not continually basking in the warm embrace of the internet, where real-time collaboration and synchronization are crushed under their own weight: the offline hole. You might want to look behind you, and ping engineering for an update on Palomino’s engine status, because the hole is getting bigger. In order to avoid a Neil Degrasse Tyson-style bifurcated death, we need to start paying attention to the offline event horizon. It’s a monster, all right.

As many of you know, I travel frequently off the beaten path, and so the offline hole is a familiar friend. Well as much of a friend as a 6-foot tall mostly irritable fire-engine red robot named Max who prefers saying hello by way of his garbage disposal hand-shake. Yes, that kind of friend. So last week there I was staring at my tablet and stewing in the offline hole. No connectivity, whatsoever. I was facing a critical shortage of G’s of any sort. The laptop (you know that thing that everyone insists is going away?) was elsewhere for the moment. That’s okay, I had a couple of hours and it was time to get something quietly done. Or so I thought.

Of course catching up on LinkedIn posts wasn’t going to happen, a social network is not much of anything without a network, especially not social. It might have been useful to update a number of Asana tasks, except of course that Asana probably thinks I should DIAF for having such treasonous thoughts while offline. I forgot to consciously sync my to-do list app, and it regrettably does a rather craptastic job of that on its own while in the background. OK, that’s cool, perhaps I’ll jot down some notes on my phone and outline some future blog posts. Unfortunately for me, I had recently upgraded my phone a few weeks back, and the new Android phone is without a native note-taking application. In my infinite wisdom I naturally joined the Evernote bandwagon, because well, just look at all those downloads! Not being especially vigilant about note-taking, or particularly inclined to pay for jotting down a few private thoughts, I had neglected to subscribe to the premium version before I left. Of course, premium showcases such esoteric and intriguing features as: offline access. So I got to stare at the Evernote login screen, a lime-colored monument to futility. Incidentally, I have since un-joined the Evernote bandwagon.

Alright, so no work was happening, but the eternal optimist in me thought this was the perfect opportunity to re-read a particularly poignant chapter of The Lean Startup. I hadn’t touched the book in a couple of weeks, and unbeknownst to me, it was not available. In fact, none of my books were. A Google update a week back had apparently wiped all local copies, I can only assume because the whole 10 Gigs of remaining storage space must have been viewed as a life-threatening lack of storage. Or, more appropriately, developers felt rather apathetic about situations where connectivity didn’t exist. Silly me for not making sure I explicitly commanded this book to be available offline well in advance, because –you know– what a bizarre and unreasonable request that must be. Fine. It was clear that nothing constructive was imminent, so like any avid gamer it was an opportunity to waste some time instead. Ready to tackle some PvZ 2 (That’s Plants Vs Zombies 2 for the uninitiated) I tapped to start. A recent update had triggered the program to download some new assets over a non-existent connection, and consequently was hung with a cryptic message about connectivity, yet another monument to futility. Sigh. I finally at least got Zen Pinball to run, but it was quick to point out that any achievements would not be available… because apparently caching such information must be like arranging a mission to Mars. Crushed into irrelevance within the offline hole.

But why the distinct lack of connectivity? What remote island cave or desert planet was I vacationing on? You see, I was on a boat. What crude manner of boat was this, where internet was not available, you might ask? Furthermore, how will this even be a problem in the future when Google satellite networks, Facebook blimps, and Amazon UAV’s will deliver sweet, delicious internet wherever I could possibly go? Even, perhaps, the moon? You see I was on a cruise ship, and all this time my dilemma was not about accessibility, but what will undoubtedly become the future limitation of all connectivity: cost. As in $55 for 100 minutes (yes, minutes) of high-latency access. Despite the high degree of suffering in the offline hole, the cheap-ass at the heart of me was downright obstinate about paying such egregious rates for what little data I needed. As ridiculous as this all seems, there is an important lesson here.

For the longest time, many have been arguing the internet must necessarily be a utility, as intrinsic and necessary to life as electricity or water. Yet, we’ve somehow unrealistically accustomed ourselves (at least in the US) to an unrealistic all-you-can-eat data buffet served at fixed monthly prices. If internet access is indeed a utility, it’s natural to assume it will be billed just like any other utility, as you use it. Not only that, but depending on how much you use it, and how difficult it is to obtain, your costs will differ. Yet despite this logic, internet metered billing is currently abhorred, and preferential data speeds granted to higher paying clients are universally decried as a threat to the ideal of net neutrality. But it is an inevitable reality. Appliances which use utilities like water or electricity understand this reality and are engineered to conserve these consumable resources, if for anything else but to save money. When you buy a water heater or an air conditioner, efficiency matters because ownership costs matter. So that means the same must hold true for appliances which use data as a utility. It’s easy to think of data as an unlimited resource, but limitations in power, bandwidth, and electromagnetic spectrum are real physical limitations. As data demand might exceed data supply driven by vigorous cloud adoption, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate the data equivalent of brown outs in the future.

The cloud software economic model hinges on one particular criticality: unfettered and relatively cheap internet data access. As that costs rises, cloud propositions don’t become impractical, but suddenly efficiency begins to matter. Cloud solutions must be both sensitive and resilient to data availability and the price fluctuations associated with accessibility of said data. And while we can get a wi-fi signal out to any place on earth and the moon, the capacity of that signal and its associated costs will vary significantly. There will be no great egalitarian data equalizer. Access, speed, and reliability will all be driven by economics. They must be. The only way to build reliable and robust systems in such a reality is to close that offline hole. Strategy must align to at least smooth the bumps and let us continue working when connectivity gets bad or gets expensive. That should translate to relatively seamless experience when connectivity is lost. That doesn’t necessarily require downloading entire datasets, but at least keeping relevant data I’ve recently touched and probably was in memory anyways. Otherwise, if there’s any justice at all, that offline hole might very well be our grave.