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I have spent a decent amount of time over last year looking into web-based occasionally-connected architectures. I have explored both the browser-local database model, and the full offline-stack model. In my daily blog reading, I often come across people who say that connections are practically ubiquitous, and so there should never be a need to work while occasionally-connected. You can read this rather strongly-worded blog entry for one example of a person advancing this view.

Even though connections may be becoming ubiquitous, it doesn’t mean they will always be usable. I ran into two such cases in the last week while trying to use my email during my travel to the PHP Quebec conference . For this conference, I decided to take the train to Montréal rather than a plane.  Although I generally prefer rail travel to air travel, one thing that really attracted me was the ability to get wifi on the trains. With the wifi, I expected that the eight-hour train trip would end up being like a regular day at the office (except that I would stand up 700 kms away from where I sat down).

Unfortunately, this was far from the case. Although all of the trains did indeed have wifi (for $8.40 per day), it was utterly unusable. My laptop was unable to maintain a connection for more than a few minutes at a time, repeatedly causing my VPN to timeout. After fighting with trying to get my email for over an hour, I simply gave up. Even when I was connected, the speed was so pitifully slow that it made even simple browsing nearly impossible.

When I finally got to the hotel, I was able to hook up to the wired internet in my room expecting to enjoy a fast, stable connection. Here I ran into another problem: I recently got a new laptop and am trying my best to only do work in VMs (after suffering from a bad case of Window’s Rot on my old laptop, I am trying to keep my base OS as clean as possible). After plugging into the port at the Hilton I accepted the $8.95 fee, and got connected…sort of.  Apparently I had made a wrong assumption that my VMs would be able to use the already-purchased connection from the base OS. The hotel must have been doing some filtering that disallowed the connection to my VMs. I tried playing around with the settings in VMWare Workstation, but had no luck sharing the connection. And, since I had been trying to keep my base OS clean, I had never installed my email client on it. Again, I was out of luck.

Granted the use of VPNs and VMs make it a bit more complicated, but I basically struck trying to simply get email on a wifi-enabled train and in my hotel room. Apparently ubiquitous connectivity isn’t as useful as it appears sometimes.

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  1. Even the “strongly worded” post gets it wrong. He says ‘Which is bizarre when you look at how availability of connectivity is ever increasing. EVDO cards, city-wide wifis, iPhones, Blackberry’s. There are so many ways to get online these days that the excitement for offline is truly puzzling. ‘   Ask a BlackBerry user if they would be content with web-based email and you’ll get a strongly worded answer. BackBerry is built around a model where connections are intermittent – it is successful in part because it hides the amount of time connections are not available.
  2. Where David StrongWord resides (Coruscant, er, NYC) connectivity is perfect. By comparison, Quebec City is Mos Eisley ๐Ÿ™‚

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