There are a fair amount of new features in iOS 7 that should substantially change the way users interact with their iPhones. We've recently gone through some of the smaller features added, but we wanted to take a look a one of the bigger ones: background updates. Apple has always been fairly restrictive when it came to background updates, because of worries over damaging battery life. Those worries are valid, as many Android users can attest, because if you're not careful about how often Facebook or Twitter poll for data, your battery life could take a big hit.
Apple was very clear at its WWDC keynote this year that battery life was the number one priority for the developers, and the idea permeated every aspect of the event from the MacOS X improvements, to the MacBook Air, and iOS. One of the big announcements was that iOS 7 was finally getting the option to allow apps to update in the background. And, now we're seeing that Apple is even allowing granular control over which apps will be allowed to update in the background, with a new Settings menu option.
As is the iOS way, any app that can update in the background will have the setting for that option centralized into the system settings menu list, rather than each individual app settings. But, just because there are options to allow apps to update in the background, and settings to control it to a certain extent, let's not forget that this is still Apple, and there will be restrictions.
The number one restriction is of course in deference to battery life. Apple made it very clear in the keynote that background updates would be coalesced and run when the device is powered up. Apps will not be able to wake your iPhone on its own to download data in the background. So, if you have various apps as seen in the screenshot to the right, the NYTimes app, Weather, and The Wall Street Journal will all update together when you wake your phone. This will certainly help battery life, but if you don't have a great data connection, it also means that a number of apps will be trying to get at your precious bandwidth at the same time.
This trouble will be somewhat mitigated by Apple's "intelligently scheduled updates", which will alter when an app is updated based on your usage patterns. So, if you tend to read the NYTimes in the morning and WSJ at night, those updates will be split up and timed accordingly. Of course, if you have a number of sources that you like to check at the same time every day, there is still the possibility of too many services updating at the same time.
Ultimately, we still need to see how well Apple can make the trains run on time, but the major restriction is simply that Apple sets the schedule, and there is a learning process for the device. We can't draw too many conclusions from the early state of the iOS 7 beta, but many have reported pretty bad battery life the first couple days, but improved battery life with more usage. At the very least, this could lead to a fairly common problem for Apple where the initial response to a new product is terrible, and that makes the impression for a while. For example, no one really complains about Apple Maps anymore, because there has been a lot of work to improve the service, but the initial barrage of bad press still gets cited as if that's the way it will always be.
Another trouble is that there is a schedule to begin with, and while Apple has touted "true multitasking" for apps in iOS 7, what we've been able to gather is that apps aren't allowed any more freedom to perform tasks in the background. The "true multitasking" is more of a combination of a better task switcher view, and the "intelligently scheduled updates". This means that an app like Google Now will still be limited by when iOS will allow them to update in the background, and won't necessarily be able to give you the real-time data that makes such apps so useful.
In the end, there is still a lot we don't know about how multitasking and background updating works in iOS 7. Given Apple's focus on battery life, we can make some pretty educated guesses though. There will be a ton of apps that will benefit from the new background updating options, including social networking apps, news aggregator apps, weather apps, and even public transit/navigation apps. But, there is a fair chance that there will still be restrictions that hold back the potential of some of the more forward-thinking apps, like Google Now. Apps like that will still have to work around Apple's system, and try to use cloud services and push notifications to give you relevant information, rather than being able to take advantage of the wealth of information available on your local device at all times.
Of course, iOS users won't really know what they're missing, because they never had it in the first place. But, it certainly doesn't add any reasons for those who may be tiring of their Android life to switch to Apple's platform.