Offline is Not a Feature


Ms. Neagu is a noted expert on data applications and XML technologies. Adriana was co-inventor of Microsoft Office InfoPath, and co-holds 4 InfoPath patents.

Offline Is Not a Feature

Updated February 16, 2015, with Forrester info. First published June 30, 2014.

A multitude of companies offer solutions for designing online forms for browsers. Many also offer mobile forms that run in mobile apps and claim the added benefit of working offline. But what does ‘offline’ really mean? Can it simply be added as a feature of forms that were born online?

Online was first

Online forms have been around a long time and are often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of electronic forms. With the proliferation of mobile devices, the first adaptation of online forms was to optimize their usability on smaller form-factor devices using techniques such as responsive web design. But it soon became evident that small screens were not the main obstacle to productivity on mobile devices.

The defining characteristic of mobile devices is not their screen size, but their pattern of intermittent connectivity. You just can’t count on a mobile device being connected at any given moment, and that makes online web forms inherently problematic. Offline support is an imperative for any vendor in the mobile forms space.

Offline is critical

Forrester Research published a report whose very title is telling — The Offline Mobile Challenge: Tackling Mobile Apps’ Most Important and Difficult Feature.  From the Forrester report summary:

“Developers … cannot make assumptions about the constancy, quality, or even existence of an individual’s network connection. Therefore offline support will be a crucial consideration for nearly every future modern application. Unfortunately, our experience shows that offline support is the mobile app feature continually underscoped by developers and over-simplified by stakeholders.”

What’s true of building mobile apps from scratch is also true of selecting a mobile forms vendor: Don’t underestimate the importance of offline robustness.

Checking the offline box

Any mobile form vendor worth considering willChecking the offline box claim offline support. This generally involves saving form data locally on the device and synchronizing it later with the server online. This most basic offline functionality will allow a user to continue working on a form when the signal is lost. Workers can fill text boxes and dropdowns, perhaps add pictures and signatures, and save the form data until the connection is restored.

This kind of basic offline functionality is typically added to online forms when they’re converted to mobile apps. But while checking the offline box is the price of entry in the mobile forms space, it’s not the same as providing a true offline-first mobile experience.

Putting offline first

“…offline support will be a crucial consideration for nearly every future modern application.”

When mobile solutions are built from the ground up as robust self-sufficient apps rather than as containers for online forms, their offline capabilities can be much richer and more powerful.

Formotus native client apps, for example, are optimized at every turn for offline use of robust, intelligent forms. Offline productivity is in the DNA of the Formotus service.

Offline capabilities checklist

What kinds of activities do mobile workers need to be able to perform in order to stay fully productive offline? Below are some of the things you can do with Formotus forms even when there is no signal in available.

  • Initiate. Create a blank new instance of a form while offline to begin filling it. Create several blank new instances of the form. Create several blank new instances of several different forms. Spend days or weeks offline generating new work forms if you need to.
  • Save. Store all your drafts of all your forms locally on the device until they are ready to submit.
  • Resume. Open a saved draft of a form in progress and continue filling it. Switch among several saved drafts of several different forms.
  • Calculate. Use forms with simple or complex calculations built right in. No server-side actions are required so it all works offline.
  • Site Safety Inspection FormNavigate. Use multi-screen forms where the user moves from one screen to another as if navigating a website. No connection necessary.
  • Branch and Skip. Show or hide questions based on the answers to other questions. Show or skip whole sections or screens pages based on field values and rules. No server needed.
  • Condition. Turn something red based on an answer. Set a field’s value with a calculation if another field meets your criteria. Hide, show, set, calculate or format just about anything based on multiple complex condition statements. Create business logic as complex as you need without coding, and execute it all offline.
  • Query. No, of course, you can’t query an online data source while offline. But you can build a data source right into the form and query that data offline. You can also query an online source while you’re connected and cache the results for later use offline.
  • Validate. Verify that required fields have been filled with data in the required format, and cue the user to correct errors, all without a server connection.
  • Submit. Submit the form any time. If you’re offline it will queue in an outbox to sync when you’re back online.

At Formotus offline is not a feature, it’s a design philosophy and an underlying consideration that permeates every aspect of our offering.

See for yourself

Install the free Formotus Pro app from your favorite app store, and take some sample mobile forms for a spin. See for yourself what it means when offline is more than a feature.