Steve Jobs Decision Behind iPhone Apps' Achilles' Heel - InformationWeek

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7/16/2008
02:40 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Steve Jobs Decision Behind iPhone Apps' Achilles' Heel

Steve Jobs is ruining the new iPhone apps! OK, I guess should explain. Take a perfectly good Apps Store entry, such as the AIM client. It won't work unless it's front-and-center on your phone. That is, AIM won't run in the background on your iPhone, meaning you can't launch it and then go over and check your e-mail, browse the Web, or listen to music.

Steve Jobs is ruining the new iPhone apps! OK, I guess should explain. Take a perfectly good Apps Store entry, such as the AIM client. It won't work unless it's front-and-center on your phone. That is, AIM won't run in the background on your iPhone, meaning you can't launch it and then go over and check your e-mail, browse the Web, or listen to music.It's the same deal with the other best-of-the-free new iPhone apps, which would be AOL Radio. This app addresses one of the main shortcomings of 1.0 iPhone, which is that you couldn't stream audio programming through the device. With AOL Radio, which is a joint venture with CBS's vast network of stations, you have a wide range of news, sports, and music offerings to connect with. This is great stuff, giving the lie to the notion that radio is dead. It includes lots of good out-of-town stations (regardless of what town you're in). Unfortunately, here, too, if you launch AOL Radio and then move to another iPhone task . . . no more radio.

Many reviewers of these new apps are wondering what the deal is. For example, if you launch the Apps Store on your iPhone and click through to the review of the AIM client, you get this comment from one "JDMike06": "The app has a great interface. However, it lacks the ability to stay connected when you exit the app, and lack of notification of new IM's outside the program."

Similar sentiments dog the AOL app. "Sexistcanbykid" (huh?) writes: "Good but. . . I wish it ran in the background."

Here's the thing, though: These commenters, and probably most uninitiated users, think that the lack-of-background operation is AOL's fault (both AIM and AOL Radio are AOL apps). However, it's not.

The inability of any iPhone apps to run in the background stems from a prohibition put in place by Apple. As I noted back in March in my post, iPhone SDK Developers Angry At Apple's Tight Control: "the iPhone won't run more than one app at a time, so when users switch applications, whatever is running in the background will get killed."

The reasoning behind this restriction is so the iPhone doesn't slow to a crawl after the user has launched a lot of apps. That's reasonable when you remember that the iPhone doesn't have a 3-GHz processor. (It's got a Samsung processor, which according to informed speculation is capable of running at 667-MHz, but may actually be clocked more.)

Now that we see how crippling this restriction is to apps that cry out for background operation -- stuff specifically like the two aforementioned AOL apps -- it's time for Jobs and Apple to rethink their policy. My proposal is that Apple issue certificates (all iPhone apps require a certificate to run) to certain select apps, which allow them to run in the background.

On the phone itself, the software should be set to manage background apps so that no more than, say, three apps (two background and one foreground) can be running at any one time. (Apps could be killed in order of launch precedence, etc., but that's tangential to my main point.) If processing power doesn't allow for three apps, then make it two.

But for Pete's sake, it's a communications device -- it'd sure be nice to have AIM running all day. If Apple doesn't address this kind of stuff, there'll be no question that BlackBerry has no competition.

What do you think?

[Update, July 17, 6 p.m.: A correspondent writes: "Apple DOES have a solution for the AIM problem. It was explained at WWDC ... and the solution is not your special permissions, but their push server, which won't be released until September.

So, once AOL updates their software, you log in using the AIM client. The login occurs through the push server and henceforth all traffic flows through that (or an unpublicized option to the AIM developers lets the traffic bypass the push server while the AIM client is running; my guess is that's not a good option due to potential data loss in spotty coverage areas). Then, the user changes to another task. AIM shuts down without logout. The push server continues to capture your inbound traffic and sends AIM client icon a badge count (the unread number on Mail) which is then shown on the home where AIM lives. If you open AIM, it then captures all the latest from the push server. Nothing lost. I think there is even an option to the developers to put an overlaid message on the screen even if you're not looking at the home (running other app)."]

[Update 2, July 17, 8:20 p.m.: With due respect to the commenters below, who're complaining that I failed to note that Apple indicated a fix at WWDC: The point is that iPhone users (not me, but users) are upset at the current situation, as indicated by the complaints in their reviews for the AIM and AOL Radio apps. These apps have a major flaw today. Furthermore, Apple has done nothing to communicate to users that a fix is on the way. I submit that the apps will be fixed when they're fixed. But right now they're not, and this situation is far worse than the activation gliches of last Friday.


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