Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Web-Based Applications Go Offline: SocialText Unplugged Ushers Us In The Offline Web App Era

Socialtext Unplugged is leading the way in adding a whole new level of flexibility to the world of web-based applications, by pioneering ways in which you will be able to work seamlessly with your favourite web apps even when you are not Internet-connected.

Photo credit: Dusan Jankovic

Only a few years ago we were bound to our desktops, or forced to carry peripherals with us on every journey out of the office. But with the recent advent of Web applications, we are now able, like never before, to collaborate, create and share content quickly and efficiently no matter from where we connect and from which computer we log on to the Internet. The rapid proliferation of web-based applications has rapidly expanded our computer-assisted work capabilities, making it possible for anyone to work directly from a standard web browser, and independently of the location and computer type used.

Web applications, have indeed increased productivity and flexibility by storing your data online, and allowing you to access it from just about any computer connected to the Internet. With it, you can access your Google Docs, Zoho Projects and SPresent presentations whether you're in Rio, Rome or New York.

But while it is definitely true that you can work on your spreadsheet in the morning in London, and finish it off in the evening when you touch down in Tokyo, but what about those long hours spent twiddling your thumbs on the plane journey over?

Sure, I can import and export my Google Spreadsheets to and from Excel, but I want to be able to click a button and edit them straight from my browser, using the same interface, with none of the inevitable glitches and bugs that come from importing and exporting files.


Yes, it's great that I can import Powerpoint files into SPresent. And I appreciate being able to save and load my presentations, I really do. But wouldn't it be great if I could keep on editing them on my tablet PC, and have them all synced up, online and ready to share as soon as I was within wi-fi range?

Until wireless Internet is totally ubiquitous - and we have a good way to go before that's going to be the case - a new solution may come to your rescue: the offline web application.

Thanks to the pioneering work being done at Socialtext, the maker of one of the most popular business enterprise wiki solutions today, I have prepared a short video review that will walk you through the simple process of taking your enterprise wiki with you, even when you have to completely forfeit your Internet connection.



Socialtext - bringing the enterprise wiki to the next level


One of Socialtext's biggest achievements was in bringing the wiki to everyday people and professionals that might otherwise have been put off by the hassle of learning 'Wiki Markup'. In short, if you decide you want to edit Wikipedia, for instance, you are going to need to learn how to format your text, in what is basically a simplified version of HTML code. Not everyone's bag.

Socialtext, on the other hand, made it possible to edit your wiki as if you were using a word processor, dispensing of the code altogether and replacing it with it a simple, intuitive WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) interface. Suddenly, wikis were hot news on the enterprise scene and not just the remit of geeks.

But after a while we realized that for all the beauty and benefit that web applications were bringing to us, a new, scary demon, was again lurking into our future. By becoming so enamoured with the use of web apps we were chaining ourselves to the need of an always-on connection, as in the lack of it, none of the marvels achieved by web-based apps could be kept running.

And, let's face it: despite all the talk of MuniFi, we are still a long way from having free, always-on, ubiquitous Internet access. There are plenty of times when we just can't get online, including those long plane journeys.

Offline web applications offer a way of freeing you up to work on your projects wherever you choose to be. Train, car, bus or airplane make no difference once your preferred web apps give you the opportunity to keep working even when the web connection is not there anymore.

With offline web apps, you can sit in the park with your laptop, and make those quick edits in the shade of a tree. Then, when you head home, you can sync up all of your work with the simple click of a button.

Video micro-review

In this video micro-review I take you through the simple process you will go through in transporting your wiki to your desktop, for easy, fully functional offline editing.

The process described here is a very simple one.

Let's say you're working on your wiki online, and have to go catch a plane.

All you have to do, as I demonstrate, is:

  • Save your file as you would usually
  • Click on the Unplugged icon
  • Leave the resulting zip file on your desktop, or transport it to your laptop / keydrive
  • Open it up, edit it in your browser (with full functionality), and save
  • Next time you are online, hit the 'Sync' button, and have all of your edited information automatically transferred to your online wiki

The TiddlyWiki connection


It's worth briefly mentioning that Socialtext Unplugged was developed by the Socialtext team in collaboration with Jeremy Ruston of Osmosoft, the creators of the simple free software TiddlyWiki.

The connection between SocialText Unplugged and TiddlyWiki is evident, as Mr Ruston's brainchild provides a simple, free micro-wiki that creates self-contained HTML pages which can be carried around or placed on a key drive. It's 'wiki on a stick' as the TiddlyWiki team would have it.

Further, the adoption and integration of the TiddlyWiki simple and open-source software solution into SocialText, Ross Mayfield and his team have shown themselves to have their ear to the ground when it comes to make the best and most intelligent use of open-source software for commercial purposes.

Taking advantage of this existing technology, and integrating it within the Socialtext schema was a smart move indeed, and a commendable one.

It is easy for developers to rest on their laurels once they have reached a certain degree of success, and Socialtext's commitment to staying involved with the latest, evolving open-source projects is testament to their forward-thinking approach.

The case for online / offline web apps

Without a shadow of doubt, I confirm my prediction that offline web apps will be a key, increasingly popular theme during 2007.

While for now the number of offline web apps is very limited (personal organizer Scrybe is another offline web application contender, offering an interesting alternative implementation of this same idea), developers are already on the case of making offline web apps happen in a "big" way in the months to come.

The ability to to sync data - beyond any existing import and exporting facility, is the key here. What in fact makes Socialtext Unplugged stand out is the fact that I can start working online, continue offline seamlessly, (and with no noticeable difference in performance), and then sync all of the data I have worked and modified with a single click.

The more companies like SocialText will work on refining usability and interface design in order to make ushc offline work as transparent as saving a file, the more offline web application will catch on.

Make the process counterintuitive and complicated and the idea will fall flat on its face.



Socialtext has taken a bold first move in making available one of the first enterprise-elevel offline web applications. This not a bug-free and highly refined tool, but it won't take long before any of the rough corners will be cleared.

2007 is bound to see a raft of companies following Unplugged and the idea of the offline web app further.

As both free and enterprise web applications catch on to the benefits that can be offered to end-users via the development of always-on web apps, we will see the seamless bridging of the online and offline worlds.

Socialtext has achieved a lot more besides so far, but the introduction of online / offline, work anywhere wikis at the enterprise level is trailblazing stuff, that will doubtless be imitated in the coming months by other developers in the expanding web application field.

This could well be the final nail in the desktop application's coffin.

N.B.: SocialText Unplugged is still in Beta and it awaits further improvements and refinements.

Additional resources

If you are interested in learning more about Socialtext Unplugged and the Online / Offline web application phenomenon, you might want to take a look at the following websites:

Robin Good and Michael Pick -
Readers' Comments    
2007-01-15 15:33:32

Ross Mayfield

Good question, Emma.

Editing conflicts are handled the same way they are with regular wiki use. With Unplugged, there is a greater chance of an editing conflict as there can be a greater duration between edits, but the same could be said for page with a high edit volume.

When there is an edit conflict, Unplugged warns you that another editor saved before you did. You can then use the text you wrote and decide to either cancel the edit, save over or manually merge your change into the page.

Conflicts between two editors are not something that you want to automate, they are different points of view at moments in time that should be reconciled by people involved.

2007-01-15 10:25:07


I really like this idea; my first thoughts though are what happens if you have downloaded the wiki - you make some off line changes, & a colleague makes others on-line.
How does it cope if they differ from each other? (e.g. you've edited an existing section, he's deleted it?)

I'm starting to look at applications that can be used by Volunteers working overseas & clearly off-line options for web apps are very useful; I've been thinking about the pros & cons of off-line discussion boards ... and can't decide if they're a good idea or not.

posted by Michael Pick on Thursday, January 11 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.




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