Why Offline First matters

Benjamin Young is a web, digital publishing, and open source advocate. Benjamin’s focus is on content and how human beings interface with it and each other around it. He currently explores the edges of a re-decentralized web using annotation, distributed identity, and offline-friendly web apps and extensions. Benjamin is currently a Solutions Architect at John Wiley & Sons where he works on the Web Annotation Working Group and Digital Publishing Interest Group at the W3C. He’ll be at ebookcraft 2017 for his talk called, On Again; Off Again.

When was the last time you were “disconnected?” Do you remember what happens when your power’s out? Or your Wi-Fi is down? Use the subway much?

Ebook authors — especially the EPUB folks in the room — will understand this most acutely. Would you want a network disruption to get in the way of your ability to read, especially when you’ve paid good money for an ebook? Probably not.

Offline First addresses the very first of the 8 fallacies of distributed computingThe network is reliable.

If the network were reliable, then there’d be no need for downloadable ebooks or offline anything. Sadly, that’s not the case now, and is (in all reasonable likelihood) unlikely to ever be the case as long as power, bandwidth, or connectivity is scarce (or monetized).

Ebook publishers understand the need for Offline First (or have assumed it, given our collective paper-based origin story). However, web application publishers, developers, and application distributors often ignore it.

Thankfully Offline First has a posse.

“Offline capability is a key characteristic of modern Progressive Web Applications. Offline-First thinking must learn from and further what we’ve seen work with Responsive and Mobile-First thinking.”
Since the publication of Designing Offline-First Web Apps in 2013, there’s been steadily growing interest in making web applications survive in disconnected scenarios. This area of Progressive Web Applications has been explored, deployed, and commoditized (in the best possible ways) through standardized web APIs (Service WorkersIndexedDB) and the growth of Offline-First-friendly open source libraries (UpUpPouchDB).

Consequently, the futures of ebook publishing and web publishing begin to converge on the horizon.

The PouchDB website, for instance, is itself an Offline-First web application/publication hybrid. Every page you visit on the PouchDB site gets cached (via some Service Worker code). However, the whole “publication” doesn’t currently get downloaded (though they’re working on that) and there’s discussion about which bits to download or “precache” and which bits to leave as “online only” (blog posts, maybe?).

The lines blur, but then so do the edges: What content do you want offline? Which content do you consider part of the “publication” and which bits are part of the “application?” Are they different?

Those questions are currently being explored by the W3C’s Digital Publishing Interest Group, the outcomes of which are taking shape in an extremely in-progress Web Publications Editor’s Draft. That draft (as drafty as it may be) points toward a combination of web technology and EPUB-style publication creation, publication, distribution, and offline-friendly reading experiences.

The bridge between the ebook and web worlds begins to take shape in a thing called a “Portable Web Publication.” The Portable Web Publications Use Cases and Requirements document draws the backdrop for the technical requirements. Progressive Web Applications and EPUB inform the shape of this proposed future Offline-First web app/publication.

The hoped-for future for both groups is a resilient platform for publication. The network may provide the inciting action in the story. However, your experience of this new app/publication becomes less dependent on the fickleness of the network.

Pieces of this future are available now. Offline is not an error. It’s the steady state of every reader, and technology is gradually catching up with reality.

Here’s your reading list before you join the On Again; Off Again talk at ebookcraft. Enjoy!

Don’t forget to register for ebookcraft to attend this and many other fantastic talks. See you in March!