Brain surgeons

Unless you’ve been stranded on a remote Pacific isle, you’re no doubt aware of the current furor over third party iPhone applications not being able to run in the background. To be blunt, I’ve never seen so many experts without a fricken’ clue. If you haven’t written code using the jailbreak tool chain, your opinions on the iPhone SDK, based entirely on what you see in a simulator, just aren’t relevant. You might as well be explaining the nuances of brain surgery.

As someone who has been involved in iPhone development for the past six months, please let me offer you a healthy dose of reality.

Twitterrific on the iPhone could definitely make use of a background process to gather new tweets. In fact, a prototype version of the software did just that. And it was a huge design failure: after doing XML queries every 5 minutes, the phone’s battery was almost dead after 4 hours. In fact, the first thing I said after giving Gruber this test version was “don’t use auto-refresh.”

The heart of the problem are the radios. Both the EDGE and Wi-Fi transceivers have significant power requirements. Whenever that hardware is on, your battery life is going to suck. My 5 minute refresh kept the hardware on and used up a lot of precious power.

(Those of you under NDA with the iPhone SDK should take a look at the documentation for Core Location. After reading about how it should be used, you’ll understand why getting your location in Maps and similar applications is only done on an “as needed” basis.)

And right about now, you’re thinking “But I’ll be smart about how I use the hardware.” Sorry, bucko, but you’re the exact reason why we don’t have background processing in the current SDK. You’re living in your own little dream world.

What happens when App A uses the network at 5 minutes past the hour, and App B uses it at 10 minutes past, and App C uses it at 15 minutes past, and so on? There’s no way for you to know what other apps are doing is there? And yet the battery is still taking a pounding.

In my opinion, such a scenario is quite likely. As a satellite device, the iPhone requires contact with other machines to do interesting things. Periodically hitting the network is the primary reason that developers want to run in the background.

Some have stated that Apple is limiting innovation. My opinion is that they are helping us from collectively shooting ourselves in the feet.

It takes several months of actual iPhone development before you eventually realize that the iPhone requires a completely different mindset. Until that happens, you’ll make assumptions based on desktop experience, and that in turn will lead to a lot of bad designs.

For what it’s worth, I think Apple will address this issue in the future. I can imagine a solution based on a plug-in (bundle) architecture that lets your application do things when the phone decides it’s a good time (not when you decide it’s a good time.) If the radios go on because you’re checking Mail, then you get a “network active” notification and a chance to run some short-lived TCP/IP connections. If you take too long, you’d get killed, much like Safari does with Javascript that runs too long.

Do I expect such a sophisticated system to be available in a beta of version 1.0? Hell no. And neither should you.