Multitasking OS Background Location Limitations

An article headline appeared in my saved search results over a hundred times last week. It was about iPhone background Location and its importance once OS 4 is released. The same piece gathered retweeted signaling status at least another hundred times. I honestly don't know what all the fuss was about, but suspect some assume multitasking support for background location will change everything and lead to new apps and business models unseen thus far leading to billions in new revenue. It won't. 

The iPhone is not the first mobile phone or smartphone to support background location atop a multitasking OS. While I appreciate the Weborati excitement, and empathize with it to a common degree, before getting too excited about the possibilities, it might be helpful to revisit some mobile location history and lessons learned from other multitasking background capabilities that arose, won brief time to shine, and later became red herring examples of what not to do. For those of you rolling your eyes, thinking "oh geez Spinney, not another history lesson", please bear with me. This one is abbreviated. I promise :-)

I asked a couple weeks ago if anyone remembered the Motorola i58sr and its background GPS capabilities. No one responded (even though I offered a prize incentive) so I can only assume my tweets are not worth responding to or no one recalled. Released in 2002, it was the US' first Java-programmble GPS-enabled mobile phone. A brick-ishly ugly, feature-dumb phone, it sported a postage stamp-sized monochrome screen, an ARM 7 processor, a SiRF (now CSR) chipset with a mediocre ceramic GPS antenna, a multitasking JVM with support for a JSR-179 layer atop it, and included a battery juiced for 2.75 hrs of continuous talk time with 71 hrs of standby time. Location data (via autonomous GPS) was easily accessible (Motorola had a freely available SDK) and developers built apps by the thousands despite its swine-like appearance.  Initially, developers used the i58sr to build check-in apps focused on workforce payroll automation and job order auditing.  Others, such as David Cohen's venture iContact built mobile social networking services atop and around the device, which admittedly failed.

Early check-in apps for workforce payroll automation and job order auditing worked fine. When workers weren't chirping back and forth with each other and the office over push-to-talk, they were using their i58sr's as digital time cards. They opened their app, selected 'start job' and then put the device away while they got to work. The 'start job' action captured a time-stamped location. When they finished their job, they hit 'end job' which captured another time-stamped location. The check-in and check-out interpolated times were used to supply back-end payroll systems with data needed to automate hourly payroll and audit jobs - essentially knowing where and when a worker was throughout the day in comparison to a daily job manifest.  Here's an example:

Things then got crazy. A few developers discovered the multitasking JVM could support both background GPS queries while running other "apps" like PTT, voice, and simultaneous data, so they designed apps to continually poll the GPS locally on the phone thinking they could track users all day. Ignoring physics is sometimes liberating for right-sided creativity, but it's certainly not practical in most cases, and certainly not with a device sporting a cheap GPS antenna and weak battery. The dung eventually hit the fan. A deluge of complaints flooded customer support lines - "I think I need a new battery", "Your battery sucks!", "There's something wrong with my phone.", "This thing only works for three hours at a time!", "I constantly have to recharge this piece of crap" were all commonly overheard customer sentiments shared with first lines of support at SMBs.     

Accessible background location in iPhone will either use wifi or GPS. iPhone's wifi implementation will continually query reference points to update itself. The GPS implementation will search the sky find a 3D fix and continue fixing itself over and over. Either option will drain battery power - fast! Apple can either throw hardware at the problem (a reason why I believe Sarantel is undervalued), or they can try to figure it out with a combination of mobile software, cellular networks, and mobile hardware. Steve Cheney summarized the later nicely in a recent post. Either way, there's no getting around the science of this problem with a cool app. I have a sneaking suspicion check-in start-ups and others betting on background iPhone location plays will learn all over again what others painfully learned six years ago with the i58sr, despite the current state of the lithium-ion art.