Offline-First, For Everything

Stop buying Chromebooks

The recent offline-first movement is driven by UX improvements. But its roots and premise are as old as the Internet itself:

You can never depend on an Internet connection.

You would think that would be obvious to everyone at this point.

But billions are still spent on the opposite assumption, that you will have an Internet connection all the time. Here’s what I’m talking about:

  • Cloud computing
  • Cloud collaborative development
  • “The Network is the Computer” (now defunct Sun Microsystems)
  • Chromebooks for Education
  • Google Docs

As most students and teachers will tell you. You can never trust that the Internet to work.

I have been badly burned by assuming this in the past, twice.

Once I was working for a small private school that had mostly donated computers in their make-shift lab.

“What do you mean your wifi only works some of the time?”

So much for my lesson plans to use a number of online coding sites that day.

Then again recently.

“Ok, go to … site and login.”

“The Internet is not responding.”

“Um. Okay, everyone install Visual Studio Code when you are home and we’ll code locally on your computers next week. Except you two Chromebook owners. Sorry you are out of luck.” (I’m actually bring my personal laptops for the Chromebook users to use.)

Don’t let this be you. Assume you will never have an Internet connection.

By the way, I am now requiring anyone in any class I teach to have their own computer with access to install stuff to it, period. I’m done futzing around with all the alternatives. I usually provide the computers myself.

The idea that any school, some of which have 1000s of students, can all be online at the same time during any particular class and not crashing the entire network is very dubious. Most schools have less bandwidth than any single home of one student. Colleges employ entire network operations teams just to keep them up and running. Even Starbucks has more reliable Internet than most schools.

So why is anyone making large purchasing decisions depending on an Internet connection?

Because they have bought into a lie, “the Internet is always on” sold to them by big corporations such as Google, Apple, and Sun (when they were around).

Depending on the Internet has been responsible for amazing achievements, but also some of our greatest failures.

“The Network is the Computer” said the now defunct Sun Microsystems. Guess what. The computer is the computer. Who’d of thunk it? Sun didn’t. Now they’re dead and forgotten. Good riddance. That company tried to sell us on “network devices” and Java, both of which are dead and dying and were horrible ideas.

Chromebooks are the zombie undead “network devices” of the late 90s come to eat our brains. They promise security and ease of use but remove all your control over the device. Sure apps are downloaded, but the thing is fundamentally dependent on a network connection.

This is the part where I have to agree with the oft off-putting Richard Stallman.

The computer is your device. This means you have a responsibility to learn how to use it responsibly before you ever get to use it. The best way to protect students is to educate them in how to use their devices, not restrict them, not lock them down.

Few agree with me.

They think students need to be protected and the school needs to be protected and society needs to be protected. That fear costs us billions in unnecessary protections and bad policies.

If these decision makers spent half the time and money they spend on “securing” stuff and building elaborate frameworks to protect students from themselves on educating them then the problem would evaporate.

Maybe the offline-first movement will make Internet-less computing and programming popular again. One can only hope, for the sake of world-wide education.