Mobile Internet and Mobile Broadband is not an always-on experience and this isn’t going to change soon. Near term, there will always be places or situations where the cellular data network doesn’t reach or where only a poor slow 2G signal is present (+). Product managers must design around it.

The best current mobile applications and devices understand this, and download what content/messages they can as soon as they can. SMS works this way: messages are delivered direct to the handset. Blackberry push email’s main benefit is that when a user opens their email, there is no wait while messages download.

This to my mind is the greatest advantage of building a mobile application, rather than a mobile website. Good applications work anywhere, anytime, whatever the network situation, and can use local storage and sync to deliver faster responsiveness than a website.

But Apple has made a strategic decision with the iPhone to target always-on behaviours.

The iPhone’s entire design assumes that there is always a fast network connection present, for both the built-in Apple applications, and the bulk of those from the new app store.

Some examples:

  • Google Maps (built-in) does not store any map data locally, even if the user has browsed that map before. Effect: the user has to wait for the map to download each time they open Maps, the speed depends on the vagaries of the mobile network. Despite the new GPS chip which works anywhere, the maps application is only usable if there’s a data network. So, its usefulness in very rural areas is limited. Alternative approach: Nokia Maps automatically caches map data locally, speeding its responsiveness, saving the operator from unnecessary data transit, and avoiding data costs for the user if roaming abroad.
  • Apple’s iPhone email only automatically downloads the in box, not other folders, so there’s a delay each time a user opens any other folder, and it doesn’t work when there’s no signal. How long the delay is depends on how many messages and the speed of the data network. With a 2G data connection and 20-30 messages I find it takes at least a minute or two. Similarly, there’s no user setting to control how much of a message is downloaded, so routinely users experience partially downloaded messages, even if the iPhone has many Gb free space.
  • Apple’s new Exchange email support does not allow messages to be moved or deleted if there’s no connection. Weirdly, Apple’s IMAP support allows it. The experience when I tried to use Exchange email on the tube, above ground where there is patchy coverage, reminded me of the user access control alerts from Vista: the iPhone kept popping up warning messages.
  • Sending SMS messages only works when there’s a network present, and the iPhone does not auto-retry sending in the background until there’s coverage. Effect: I write a message on London’s tube where there’s no signal and I have to remember to click send when I surface. I’ve seen the same poor behaviour on Windows Mobile 6. Alternative approach – my Nokia 7110 from 1999, write an SMS, try and send it, fails, but the text stays in the outbox and the phone auto-retries in the background. The SMS gets sent as soon as it’s possible.

  • Apple Weather app downloads weather each time the app is opened and has no local cache. Effect, doesn’t work on London’s tube. Slow to launch. No different in experience for the user compared with accessing a bookmark of a mobile website that has been saved to the iPhone home screen.
  • Evernote (a great third party application) stores all notes on its servers with no local cache or sync, unlike the PC and Mac versions of Evernote that sync notes between Evernote’s cloud and the local computer. Alternative approach – Windows Mobile syncs notes from Outlook to the handheld with a full copy of each note in both places.

  • The newspaper applications for iPhone are little more than skinned websites, but which take longer to load than the iPhone’s Safari web browser, and still only work with a live mobile data connection. Mobile News, Bloomberg, SFNetNews applications all require a connection to read stories, just like accessing a mobile website in Safari, yet take longer to launch and have a less standard UI as they are all distributed as separate applications. Alternative approach – antique Palm application Avanto Go, enables users to download content to their PDA for offline viewing. More recent Windows Mobile and Symbian versions offer over the air download. Local storage improves the speed to jumping between pages, so people read more, and see more adverts. The New York Times app for iPhone also appears to do this, but it needs a better UI to display when it has finished downloading stories.

If there’s no data connection the current iPhone UI repeatedly nags the user to remind them to switch off flight mode (if the user has set it to on), or that there is no data connection if the mobile is “on” but has poor reception. This reminds me of the worst of Vista’s user access control pop-ups (which can at least be switched off).

Bottom line – Apple needs to improve the iPhone’s ability to operate where there is a slow connection, or when there is no mobile data network present. They need to add automatic local caches to their standard applications, and offer the user a few more settings to manage data roaming, beyond the current blunt on/off. Apple also need to make it easier for third party apps to store and cache data locally as well.

+ Examples of coverage issues:

In-building, 3G signals often don’t reach or are weak. In rural areas, mobile networks routinely only offer gprs and sometimes there is no reception at all. Airplanes don’t allow cellular radio use. Public transport often lacks good coverage: cellular masts tend to have been positioned along main roads, not along train lines, plus cuttings and tunnels break up the signal. London’s tube has no underground mobile coverage whatsoever. If a 3g cell becomes very busy, speeds slow, and the geographical area that 3g covers actually shrinks. Etc. etc.

If a user is moving in a train or a car, there is no guarantee that a good mobile data signal, or any signal, will continue to exist as the user roams between cells and locations. They may start an activity in good coverage and then lose it.