Facebook 3.1 Highlights All That’s Wrong With Push Notifications

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In a tweet on Monday, Joe Hewitt, developer of the iPhone Facebook app, announced that the next major update (version 3.1 to be precise) will finally bring Push Notifications to the popular application.

Facebook is easily one of the most popular free apps available in the iTunes App Store. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an iPhone without it. Version 3.0 was a mammoth update to earlier, functionally limited releases, and was eagerly anticipated and reported widely in the tech press. And yet, the lack of support for Apple’s Push Notification Services was, and remains, conspicuous. Adding Push Notifications is the no-brainer icing on the cake function for end-users who don’t spend every second in the app but value being kept in-the-loop with timely updates. It’s also the last major hurdle to making the social networking app practically perfect. (Probably.)

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However, TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has suggested that the long-awaited introduction of Push Notifications in the Facebook app will also make it the unwitting poster child for illustrating all that is wrong with Push, and more directly, how Notifications are handled on the iPhone. Siegler writes:

The Push Notification management system beyond a certain threshold is basically useless. That is to say, when you’re getting a large number of Push Notifications on your iPhone, it’s almost laughable how bad the built-in system is for trying to figure out what you just got notified about beyond the most recent message.

If you’re an iPhone owner you probably already know exactly what this is about. Let’s say your iPhone is locked. You receive an important SMS. That familiar blue pop-up box appears on the screen. A moment later, you also receive a Push Notification from one of your apps. The blue box is replaced with another.

The next time you hit the Sleep/wake button and look at your screen (just look, don’t unlock) you’ll see only the latest notification. You’ll have no way of knowing that important SMS is lurking in the background, waiting for your attention, unless you unlock and check for that little red notification badge on the Messages icon. If you’re in a hurry (or in a meeting) and can’t spend more time on the phone than is absolutely necessary, you’re not going to see that important SMS until much later.

What Siegler is saying – and many iPhone owners are likely to agree – is that the iPhone needs a more sophisticated notification system. He adds,

The Push system is such a mess right now, that many of the most popular developers are letting others deal with it. Loren Brichter, the guy behind the excellent Twitter app Tweetie, tells us that he’s tabled Push Notifications for the time being, letting others like Boxcar handle it, because it’s a potential headache.

To date, applications are forbidden to run as background processes on the iPhone. It’s important to remember that Push was created to provide application developers with an elegant solution to the challenges they faced due to that functional limitation. Even so, I find agree with Siegler – the iPhone OS desperately needs a more sophisticated way to handle multiple unread notifications, because if nothing changes, the advent of Facebook 3.1 (not to mention the growing number of other push-enabled apps) brings with it a future filled with those little blue popup boxes.


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