Apple Serious About Background App Support For iPhone 3.0

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Apple (AAPL) is serious about letting more iPhone software — beyond its native apps like phone, iPod, and Mail — run in the background, we’ve heard from sources in the mobile industry. This could potentially happen as soon as Apple’s iPhone 3.0 release, based on scuttlebutt we’ve heard.

Here’s two potential scenarios we’ve heard. Treat these as rumours for now, as we don’t know how realistic they are — especially for the first version of iPhone 3.0, due within a few months.

  • Apple might allow users to select two apps that can run in the background. Specifically, one source says there’s some evidence of this in a new beta of Apple’s iPhone 3.0 software developers kit. (We don’t have the SDK, and wouldn’t know where to look if we did.)
  • Apple might selectively allow some apps to run in the background. We assume that developers could apply for permission to run in the background, and that Apple might approve or deny them based on the resources they need, how well they behave with the operating system’s stability, and how much network bandwidth they need.

Apple has so far not allowed its iPhone app developers to write software that runs in the background to avoid potential battery life and security problems — and to avoid confusing users with a “task manager.”

It’s possible that this will not happen for iPhone 3.0. But it wouldn’t be a complete shock if it did, either. Apple’s competitors like RIM, Microsoft, Palm, and Google all support background processing for third-party apps. It’s something Apple will have to support someday, even if only on new hardware. The sooner, the better.

In the meantime, Apple has developed a push notifications system that will allow apps to get a user’s attention while the app is not running. For instance, an instant messaging service like AIM could use a push notification to let you know that it’s received a new IM for you, prompting you to open the AIM app on your iPhone. This will be helpful even if background processing is enabled for some apps. But it’s not going to be a complete replacement.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment, and will update if we hear back. Please let us know if you have more information: [email protected]

Update: Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says:

Ordinarily I wouldn’t link to something as sketchily sourced as this, but: I heard something very similar from a decent (but second-hand) source back in January during Macworld Expo. What I heard then was that Apple was working on a vastly improved dock for your most-frequently used apps, and that there’d be one special icon position where you could put a third-party app to enable it to run in the background. Take it with a grain of salt, though: my source in January described it as an idea Apple was working on, nothing more.

The major limiting factor right now is RAM. There just isn’t much left for third-party processes on the current hardware’s 128 MB.

Good point. We assume Apple has gone through the painstaking trouble of making its apps as efficient as possible. But even now, when listening to music and playing a game at the same time, things get slow sometimes. Even worse is when the phone tries to check email during those other processes. So the idea of limiting background processing is a good one. That said, we’d love the ability to keep an IM app open in the background.

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