Offline Browsing: Useful or Useless?

First Published:
Date Published: 1997
Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Savetz

Kevin Savetz: I can only assume, Neil, that you don't manage to pull yourself away from your Internet connection too often. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and allow myself to believe that you take a laptop with you on the occasional business trip, or at least on your trips to the bathroom. In order to keep us pacified while we're not connected to the Net, both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer include tools for working offline.

If you ask me, offline browsing is a pretty neat idea. With it, you can ask the software to visit selected web sites. Instead of displaying the web pages immediately, the browser downloads them and copies the whole kit and kaboodle to your hard drive: text, graphics and all. You can even tell it how many links to follow as it copies the site to your computer, so you can get just part of a site or the whole thing. Later, when you're disconnected from the Net, you can access your copy of the Web site.

In Netscape Communicator 4, the offline browser is a part of the Netcaster "push" application, which actually makes a lot of sense, since both push and offline web browsing are about storing, then viewing web content. How's the offline browser look on your side of the fence?

Neil Randall: Looks good. IE4's offline browser springs from the Channels feature, but like Channels is built right into the main browser (let's spare our readers that particular vitriol this time, okay?). Basically, you can "subscribe" to any Web site you want and have changes downloaded to your hard drive. This is a kind of extension to the idea, which Netscape has had in its Bookmarks for awhile, that the browser goes out and checks for changes to Web sites. Instead of just telling you that changes have occurred (both suites will do that, too), IE4 downloads as many pages and features as you want. In fact, from what I can tell, the two suites work quite similarly here. I could be wrong, though, and I'm confident you'll tell me if I am.

Unlike you, however, I don't see offline browsing being a great deal of use. When you can get all-you-can-eat Internet access with a national or international service provider, why not just plug in and head for the site? I can see it being extremely useful for people who give presentations - never rely on a live Net hookup for one of these, as I'm sure you've discovered - but other than that, what's the point?

Kevin Savetz: I'm sure you're pleased as punch with your unlimited-use AOL account (or whatever it is you use) but believe it or not, not all Internet users are so lucky. Their access providers may be a long distance call away, or incur surcharges that make it cheaper to log in during the wee morning hours. Offline browsing is perfect for folks in these situations.

Even for those of us who are better connected, offline browsing can be a powerful supplement to our usual access with a web browser. If you have a slow modem or regularly access overloaded web sites, you know what it feels like to wait -- and wait and wait -- for a page to load. Why endure that when it can all be avoided with a little preparation and an offline browser?

Geez, Neil, even if you have a dedicated T-1 connection, you can still benefit from offline browsing. As fast as a T-1 is, it's still not as fast as viewing web pages that are stored on your hard drive. If you know you have to start a research project after lunch, point your browser to a few web sites on that topic before you go outside to see what mommy packed in your lunchbox. By the time you've finished the last Oreo, your computer will have its very own copies of the web sites you selected, meaning your research can go that much faster. And because you have your own copy of the information, you can keep working even if your T-1 goes down or a vital Internet backbone implodes after lunch.

Neil Randall: Oreos? My mother never gave me Oreos. My mother made my cookies by hand, and had them waiting for me fresh from the oven every day, with a good wholesome glass of milk. Maybe you got your lunch from the 7-11, but not me!

Okay, I buy the beat-the-bad-connection theory of offline browsing. But I have a couple points. First, why do I want all this junk on my hard drive? I mean, the six gigs of space I already own is rapidly disappearing, without shoving a whole slew of Web pages into the empty spaces. And I won't even mention the possible dangers - actually, I will. Isn't is possible that downloading Web pages is just asking for trouble with security? Yes, I know the browser's cache already stores stuff on the drive, but I feel I have more control over that feature.

If I find a Web document I want to use for research, I just save it as an HTML or text file. Works just fine. True, I have to actually search for the material, but I like being active. It helps me wear off those homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Kevin Savetz: The big scary browser is not going to fill up your hard drive, both Netscape and IE4 make it easy enough to remove content when you're done with it (although you might end up smearing chocolate all over the delete key.) Even better, if you don't want to delete the site from your drive, the browsers will update your local copy, making sure that you always have the latest information at your disposal.

You don't need to download the world, just use offline browsing as the useful tool that it is. Erase the data when you're done. Or go get a bigger hard drive.

Articles by Kevin Savetz