Why mobile reference apps shouldn't be cloud-based

There are a great many applications coming out these days that are a type of reference book replacement and are designed so that you have to be connected to the Internet in order to use them. If you want access to information, you had better be connected to the magical cloud. I have a big problem with that, and no one I've worked with in recent years seems to understand why. Apparently, the digital elite think that everyone has constant access to the Internet, and therefore, there is no need to produce applications that have everything needed packaged in local storage. Unfortunately, that's just not the case.

In order to make my case, let me start out by explaining some of the reasons application producers give as to why all reference works written for tablets or smartphones should get their information from the Net instead of local storage. The theory goes that everyone who has a tablet or a smartphone is always connected to the 'Net through either mobile networks or wifi. Furthermore, it's generally imagined that both tablets and smartphones have limited onboard storage, making it unwise to keep lots of information locally. There's also the general sentiment, which is pretty much true, that nearly all references become flawed or obsolete as soon as they are published in any "final form", either because of errors detected or because of new information which becomes available. If you have to continually fix a reference work, why have a fixed copy at all?

Let's start with the first idea: That everyone who would like to use your reference work has access to the Internet at all times. This is simply untrue. There are many places that are not the Japan or Western Europe or coastal USA where the infrustructure allows the middle and upper class constant connection to the Net through the air. You don't have to live in Nigeria or El Salvador to lack consistent access to some form of wireless Internet. If you happen to be, say in Colfax, Washington, USA, you may have access to the 3G Internet if you stand on one side of the street, and no access at all standing on the other side of the street. If you live just outside of town, you will have no mobile telephone access at all, 3G or otherwise, so any network tools on your phone will be useless.

Quite frankly, it seems to me that if one has access to the Internet at all times, there is little reason to use a stand alone application to get reference information which is available via the browser. Sure, some people like to do some tasks in a purpose-built application. Then again, the website itself is a purpose-built application, so why download an extra widget onto your device?

The idea that tablets and smartphones are so limited that there is no room for the data in a reference work is pretty silly on the face of it. Modern tablets have more onboard storage than the desktop computers of the 1990's. We can put hundreds of books onto a Kindle. And, yes, we can fit hundreds of dictionaries, college guides, maps, and other tools onto a Xoom, too.

Finally, the problem of information obsolesence is not really such a big problem at all when it comes to reference book applications on any device which is at least sometimes connected to the 'Net. Many of the applications sitting on my present Android tablet receive frequent updates. Nearly everyday there is at least on application informing me that there is an update to install. Any reference application that has all of its data sitting on the user's device can easily be updated as often as is necessary in order to keep it as accurate as possible.

If you find yourself planning the development of a new reference work for Android, iPhone/iPad, or Windows Mobile, please, be considerate of your end user, and make sure that the data that makes your application work is all contained on the device so that it will be usefull no matter where the user may be, or the status of their Internet connection.