Are Push Notifications Better Than Background Apps?

iphone-push-notificationWhen Apple announced its push notifications for mobile software titles, I was skeptical. That’s not surprising, because I was raised in a multitasking world. In that world, you just run multiple apps at the same time and flip around from one bit of software to another. It’s the world that we all live in today with our computers. But the mobile world isn’t the same as the desktop world. Running multiple applications can hit the CPU and radios harder on our handsets, which, in turn, use more battery power.

So Apple’s idea is to manage software events on its servers and push a notification of those events to your handset. Essentially, the software relies more on the network and servers than the client hardware. The benefit is that a third-party app isn’t just sitting there running when there aren’t any events that require it to be active. This paradigm saves battery life because software only runs when you need it to. On the other hand, it requires third-party developers to channel all events through Apple’s infrastructure. I find that to be limiting, but it’s a necessary evil to gain the benefits.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to use two handsets, my Apple iPhone 3GS and my Palm Pre. These represent the two ends of the spectrum. The iPhone supports the effective push notifications, while the Pre offers superb multitasking capabilities. And I’m on the fence about which is better. Simply put, they both work well, but with tradeoffs.

The Pre offers the same desktop computing paradigm where I can load up and run several applications all at once. It’s easy for me to navigate to different apps. And it’s fast, too; by leaving apps up and running, I don’t waste any time waiting for an application to fire up. But I suspect part of the Pre’s fast battery drain is due to running several bits of software all at once.

On the other hand, the iPhone doesn’t waste CPU cycles with software that’s simply sitting there churning and burning. And when the push notifications are working 100 percent, it’s a relatively seamless experience. Using Beejive, for example, I can be “logged in” to IM, even though the app isn’t running. When someone at work starts an IM conversation, a notification is pushed to my iPhone, and I can start the app with one button press. The app fires up, and the IM conversation is there for me to read and respond to. But again, push notifications are only as good as the service they’re on, and I’ve seen a few slip through the cracks or take more than a few minutes to show up.

Which is best? Both have their share of pros and cons. While I like the multitasking approach that Palm offers, it may hit the battery too hard for power users of the Pre. And I’m not sold on the reliability of Apple’s notification service just yet. If forced to choose a model, I’d probably go with push notifications, simply because a device with a dead battery is a useless device. Any way I can use my handheld effectively and save battery life is appealing.

In an ideal world, I’d really like to see a third-party provide push notifications. Such a company would offer open standards for developers on all platforms to use the notification service. That would provide the same type of experience across all mobile devices and not tie the technology to a single platform or device. Until then, however, my notifications go through Apple.

I’ll be looking at some other apps with push notification over the next several weeks. Maybe the experience will get me off the fence, since I like both push and multitasking at the moment. So far, the battery on my Pre generally gets me through a full day, so the multitasking isn’t eating juice too much. I also have both devices set to fetch email every 15 minutes, even though both can handle push email. I don’t consider email an “instant” communications method: For that, I have a phone and instant messaging.

What are your thoughts about multitasking and push notification on mobiles so far?

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