iPhone push notifications: dead and buried, or waiting in the wings?

Apple’s no stranger to missing a deadline or two, nor is the company averse to pushing back products a few weeks or months when they need more time. But less common are products that disappear entirely into the world-devouring maw of 1 Infinite Loop’s private black hole.

That’s apparently what happened to the push notification system for the iPhone that Apple touted at 2008’s Worldwide Developer Conference. The system was meant to quell complaints over the fact that the iPhone OS doesn’t allow multitasking—with the exception of a few of Apple’s own programs, apps can’t run in the background as they do in most desktop operating systems. The system would be delivered, Apple SVP of iPhone Software Scott Forstall promised, in September. It wasn’t.

As the end of January 2009 draws near, there’s still no sign of push notifications. Reports at the end of September said that all support for the system was pulled from beta versions of the iPhone Software Development Kit for the then-forthcoming iPhone 2.1 update. So what happened?

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We put in a call to Apple to find out the reason why, but unless you’re new to this whole scene you won’t exactly be flabbergasted to hear that the company was about as communicative as your average sullen teenager. The company’s approach appears to be pretending that the system was never announced in the first place—you won’t find any notice of it on Apple’s site, save for the plaintive cries of users wondering what happened to it.

That hardly stops us from theorizing about its disappearance, though: Is it buried with Jimmy Hoffa? Did it crash on a mysterious island? Did Steve Jobs travel back in time with Apple’s as-yet-unreleased-except-in-the-future-duh time machine and wipe all traces of the notification system from history? Well, that’s ridiculous—I mean, we wouldn't be talking about it now, right?

Of course, there are certainly some more reasonable—at least in comparison—possibilities.

Reach > Grasp

Last summer, Apple’s plate was fuller than that of the average customer at the Old Country Buffet: it tried to simultaneously roll out the iPhone 3G, the brand new App Store, and an overhauled version of its Internet service, MobileMe. Unsurprisingly, like the aforementioned buffet enthusiast, its eyes were bigger than its stomach and there were enough problems to prompt Apple to dole out extensions to MobileMe subscribers like free t-shirts on a college campus.

No less than Steve Jobs himself was said to be, um, disappointed with MobileMe’s launch, a sentiment he expressed in an e-mail to Apple employees in which he said that the service was “not up to Apple’s standards.”

It seems plausible that, having learned from that experience, Apple wasn’t sufficiently confident in launching yet another online service, especially one that might have been more complicated than the company first anticipated. One developer I talked to opined that Apple might not have thought the whole idea through, given the issues of scale that the system might encounter in the real world.

Mission: Unpossible

As much as the push notification was said to be the solution to the iPhone’s lack of multitasking, the problems that it solves are actually rather limited. Developers had three options of notifications: they could place a badge on their app’s icon (a la Mail, Text, and Phone apps); pop up a dialog box (like the on you get when you receive a text message) that would allow the user to open the app or dismiss the dialog; or cause the application to play a sound (that was already on the iPhone).

While there are several types of applications that might be helped by such a solution, there are also plenty for which notifications are useless. Take music applications for example. While the iPhone’s iPod application can continue to play music when it’s not running in the foreground, third-party audio apps such as Internet radio programs can’t. Instant messaging apps, on the other hand, might benefit from notifications, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be better served by being able to run in the background.

So a second possibility is that Apple decided to ax the push notification system because it didn’t do enough. As a company, Apple’s never been afraid to say “no” to things that aren’t up to snuff, even when it’s a product that’s close to shipping—it’s a rare ability in corporate culture. But if that is the case, then don’t be surprised to find out that Apple is working on a different—and better—solution.

It’s all too much

Okay, so it's not so much a third theory as it is a sort of amalgam of the previous two. The notification system was supposedly developed because it was less taxing than multitasking, using fewer of the iPhone’s resources, and because it was easier to manage (you don’t need to figure out which processes are running away with your memory, for example).

But what Apple didn’t necessarily take into account was the user. Right now, you might get text messages popping up dialog boxes when you’re browsing the Web or checking your e-mail, but imagine that every application on the iPhone had the ability to interrupt you. Sure, you’d probably be able to turn the notifications on and off for individual apps, but all it takes is one irresponsible application, and you’re inundated with dialog boxes and literal bells and whistles.

Apple prides itself on simplicity and elegance—maybe the company realized that the notification system might cause more problems than it solved.

Notifications? What notifications?

And then of course, there’s this: who really cares? To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams: despite the noise Apple’s rather public self-imposed deadline made as it whooshed by, it’s not as though the Internet has been overrun with people demanding their push notifications. Sure, you’ll find comments on Apple's discussion boards and the iTunes Store, and you might even see the occasional irate blog post, but it’s not as though people are up in arms or—more to the point—not buying iPhones because Apple hasn't delivered this feature.

Maybe that’s the simple answer: that people—to wit, users—just don’t care. They’ve learned to adapt to the iPhone’s way of doing things, and that way doesn’t include notifications or multitasking...at the moment, anyway. At some point in the future it seems likely that Apple will introduce a new feature that takes care of the issues that notifications would have addressed, and it appears that most users are content to wait until then.

Hey, maybe it will even come with copy-and-paste functionality.

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