Note: This was originally posted on the Center for Democracy & Technology blog.
From the iPhone’s very first days, legions of avid smartphone users have awaited the day when Apple would announce support for “multitasking” – the ability to keep multiple iPhone applications running at once. In yesterday’s preview of the latest iPhone operating system, Apple answered that call. To support multitasking, Apple introduced several different kinds of “background” functionality that will allow applications to continue to work even when they’re not occupying screen space.
One of the key background features introduced yesterday supports the ability for apps to locate you while they’re running in the background. With iPhone OS 4.0, apps that provide turn-by-turn directions or locate you on a map for all your friends to see will be able to keep up with you on the go, even if those apps aren’t open on the phone.
Whether this addition excites or scares you probably depends on your personal privacy preferences and app usage patterns, but for those who are more on the latter end of the spectrum, Apple also introduced several new location awareness and control features: an arrow displayed in the status bar whenever an app is tracking your location, the ability to enable and disable location collection for each individual app, and individual arrow indicators tagged to apps that have requested your location in the last 24 hours.
We’ve yet to test out these features for ourselves, but they sound promising. Having a global location-tracking indicator is something we’ve been pleased to see other mobile platforms pursue (the GPS indicator on Android is one example). And it has been discussed at length (although not adopted) in the W3C Geolocation working group, which is standardizing a web interface for location gathering. Simply put, we believe that users should have tight control over location tracking, and it’s pretty hard to have control if you don’t even know that tracking is occurring, so the kind of indicator Apple announced yesterday is key.
The per-app controls also seem like a big improvement over the current iPhone location settings (some of which we wrote about last year). It will be interesting to see how easy it is to find these settings, and whether they apply equally to web sites like Flickr and others that are rapidly becoming location-enabled. We’re hoping that these new settings give people comprehensive, easy-to-use control over how their location is shared, demonstrating that small screen sizes don’t necessarily equate to a loss of user control.