As great as the iPhone is, it has one glaring weakness: The inability to run third-party applications in the background. That badly cripples certain types of apps, such as those that do instant messaging, music streaming and location-based services. Apple’s Push Notification system coming with the iPhone 3.0 software will help slightly, but it will not be a complete solution. And Apple clearly knows that, because it’s talking about ways to do background tasks.
Earlier today, Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider cited sources in the mobile industry saying that Apple was serious about allowing background applications. John Gruber of Daring Fireball backed this up, saying he heard something similar from a decent source a few months ago. I’ve just spoken with a trusted source who confirmed the news as well.
Basically, my source says that while this is in no way a done deal yet, Apple is definitely trying to come up with a way to offer background support for third-party apps. They went on to note that while Apple may have something to say about it at WWDC, it’s very unlikely that any solution would be ready at that time, and could be a situation similar to how Apple announced Push Notification at WWDC last year but said it was coming in a few months (which it later was delayed until iPhone 3.0).
And it’s entirely possible that Apple won’t even have anything to say about it at WWDC as it’s still believe to be in the relatively early planning stages. All that is for sure is that Apple is telling some people that it is very aware of the community’s desire for background tasks and that it thinks it may have a solution to offer on the horizon.
The reason Apple is being careful about this is because if it fully opened the iPhone to background tasks, the device’s excellent user experience would be threatened on a couple fronts. First, there’s a security concern about third-parties pushing and pulling data constantly to and from the device. My source believes Apple would likely separately approve apps for background support, but wouldn’t necessarily limit the offering to a handful of special apps.
The second concern is the iPhone’s power and speed. Some users have been bitching about the device’s battery since day one — with third party applications constantly running in the background, the battery life would get much, much worse. Owners of the G1, the Android-powered phone that allows robust apps to run in the background, will know what I’m talking about. And background apps also eat up processing power. With some high-powered games that now run on the device, system resources are already getting heavily taxed, imagine running one of those with other applications also running.
Apple’s solution for this would likely be to limit the number of third-party apps that could run in the background at once, says my source. This is consistent with the other reports on the matter. And the new iPhone hardware is likely to have a better processor and more RAM, which would alleviate system strain, so it’s also possible these background apps would only be possible with the new hardware.
So why is Apple talking about this now? Well one part may be the new hardware that should be coming shortly, but another is undoubtedly the imminent launch of the Palm Pre.
Given that the Pre will be the first phone since the iPhone to use multi-touch and that Palm is made up of many former Apple employees, there’s been quite the rivalry brewing between the two companies over the past several months. There has been talk that the 3.0 software will neutralize many of the supposed advantages the Pre would have had over the iPhone, but background tasks will remain the big one. If Apple can neutralize that as well, the Pre becomes a lot less attractive.
Of course, there’s a lot of talk about how the Pre’s webOS platform was constructed specifically around the idea of running multiple applications at once, the iPhone’s OS was not. But I think even limited third-party background support would be enough to satisfy most users. If I could just say, listen to Pandora, while also surfing the web, I’d be a happy man.
There has been talk about third-party application background support before, and I’ve heard whispers in the past as well. And while my source today made it very clear that it’s entirely possible Apple will scrap its plans completely if it can’t come up with a good solution, it seems pretty clear that we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the possibility of third-party background tasks on the iPhone.