Will Next Week's Apple Event Finally Bring Background Apps To The iPhone?

This morning, after many months of rampant speculation over the enigmatic Tablet, Apple officially invited scores of press to a special media event to be held January 27. The debut of the Tablet seems all but a given according to most reports, but there are some secondary announcements that also stand to be huge — especially the rumors that we may also see the launch of iPhone 4.0. This afternoon, Fox News “confirmed” that we’d being seeing the latest iteration of Apple’s hugely popular mobile OS for the first time. Should that be the case, there’s also a good chance we’ll see launch of a very important new feature: background applications.

First things first. While the title of the Fox News article is “Apple Tablet, iPhone 4 Launch Confirmed for January 27”, the body of the article later says that it’s “likely” that Apple will unveil those two products (along with an updated iLife suite), and also notes that Apple is known for suddenly removing features or products from their announcements at the last second — none of which makes the news sound totally concrete. That said, there are plenty of reasons why iPhone 4.0 could be making an appearance alongside the Tablet, and why it will bring background apps with it.

We’ve discussed the probable connection between the Tablet and the iPhone OS since as early as last May. With iPhone OS, Apple took Mac OS X and stripped it down to the basics to turn it into a compact and powerful mobile operating system. The tablet will almost certainly have more horsepower than the iPhone, but it would still stand to gain from the power and space saving attributes of the mobile OS (albeit a modified version). Our suspicions got further support less than a week ago, when we saw reports that the newest releases of the iPhone OS was actually being held back because some of its code alluded to the unannounced tablet device. Given these ties, it would be logical for the iPhone 4.0 OS to make its debut alongside the tablet.

But the Tablet OS will need to bring some new features with it. For one, it will probably need to allow users to run multiple apps at the same time. Most people don’t particularly care (yet) that they can’t do this with their iPhones, because the screen real estate is so limited and they don’t view the device as a handheld computer (even though it is one). But that won’t be true with the tablet — in light of its larger screen, users will expect more functionality, and the inability to run multiple apps would grow frustrating quickly. With that in mind, if Apple has already established a paradigm for running background apps on the tablet, it would make sense to finally bring it over to the iPhone too.

The iPhone’s current lack of background applications is one of its most glaring weaknesses compared to other mobile operating systems, most notably Android and Palm’s WebOS. Apple’s reasons for withholding the functionality before now were obvious: running multiple applications can drain the device’s already-strained battery more quickly, and forcing users to manage which apps are open adds an extra layer of complexity. It was the right choice then, but it’s time for things to change.

Plenty of developers have already had their applications hampered by their inability to run in the background. Messaging clients have to rely on the iPhone’s Push notifications, which can only display a single alert at a time. Music players (other than the built-in iPod app) close down as soon as you try to do anything else on the phone. And location based apps have to rely almost exclusively on the “check-in” model popularized by Foursquare, because they have no way to passively monitor your location. Consumers may not be frustrated by these restrictions yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they look enviously at their Android-toting friends streaming Pandora and running Skype or Meebo in the background.

And Apple knows it. As far back as last May we were hearing that Apple was having serious discussions about how to implement background applications.  As it did with copy and paste (which iPhone users had to wait years for), Apple is clearly taking its time to get it right the first time.  Now, with the imminent release of the tablet, Apple may have finally settled on a solution.  If the Fox News report is correct, that could be revealed as soon as next week. But even if iPhone 4.0 isn’t announced for a few more months, it seems highly likely that background apps will come with it.

Image via Gizmodo. And no, it isn’t real.