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Tuesday, February 03, 2009, 04:05 pm PT (07:05 pm ET)

Apple rumored allowing real background apps on iPhone

After leaving its once-touted background push data feature by the wayside, Apple is now reportedly mulling an option that would let iPhone apps run third-party background processes and give the phone true app multitasking.

The hint of a change in strategy was given to Mac Rumors, which now hears from unspecified sources that Apple is considering the switch away from its original approach and may let programs operate as "user selectable background processes."

Why such a move would occur isn't known. When the iPhone maker first unveiled background push notification at the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2008, the company famously chastised Microsoft and most other smartphone OS developers for challenging users with difficult solutions to quitting or switching between apps and suggested that then-current phones couldn't handle the task. Even so, the solution precludes background use of third-party apps that need always-on access, like radio or VoIP calling software.

At the June event, Apple said it considered background push notification an ideal compromise that would close apps but keep them "listening" for data through an Internet channel; an instant messaging app could signal that it has received new messages without having to stay open and chew up system time.

However, the company has since remained almost entirely silent on the matter. Where early iPhone 2.1 beta firmware included background notifications, the fourth developer test version pulled the feature altogether without any commentary on Apple's part beyond an alleged reply e-mail from CEO Steve Jobs, who stated that company wanted to get background push "100% right the first time." The official 2.1 and 2.2 releases have similarly passed on the feature while adding others.

While no additional evidence has come up to support theories that the delay is being used to implement true background processes, speculation has surfaced that Apple may have to wait until its next major iPhone revision to implement the necessary code. With a 412MHz ARM processor and only 128MB of temporary memory, the first- and second-generation iPhone lines may struggle to support more than one or two background apps before becoming unusable. If the feature requires a new ARM processor or additional memory to be useful, Apple could either restrict the number of third-party background processes on older models or else disable the feature entirely for these devices.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based firm may nonetheless be under pressure to add the support in spite of cutting off legacy hardware. In addition to existing competitors that already had background support but have only recently launched direct iPhone alternatives, Palm's new Pre smartphone will have more authentic multitasking in an iPhone-like interface by letting users shuffle or toss "cards" that represent active software.