Web Clipper Part 2

This is a second part of a series dedicated to iOS backgrounding. This one is about Silent Push Notifications and background NSURLSession. But first let me share a small update on the first post.

Background fetch (continued)

Since the previous post, I've found something I can't help but share. It seems like running apps with common bundle identifiers will trigger background fetch on each other.

Latest article ends on background fetches not getting called for over 24 hours. A few days later, I've received this "no background fetches" notification again. And then, in a few days, again. At first I struggled to find any logical explanation for this, but later I discovered that I'm using my company's dev program, and my bundle id was com.companyname.BackgroundFetchInvestigator. It so happened that I've built and ran a few apps with com.companyname.SomeOtherApp bundles. These moments correspond with a new cycle of background fetch requests for my test app: normally it would launch it immediately after I quit the other app, then make two to four fetch attempts later. Then the updates stop forever once again.

Silent push notifications

This is by far the most reliable approach that I've tried. You sign up for silent push notifications from a server that regularly sends you silent pushes. You wake your app and fetch necessary data, update the web page snapshot and call it a day.

In my scenario, I used Parse (which I think is very unreliable and poorly engineered as a BAAS, yet it works just fine for a simple task like this). I scheduled a background job that sent me pushes every 15 minutes. The pushes arrived fairly reliably, occasionally skipping an update a couple of times a day. I have never seen two consequent updates failing.

Battery usage was consistently reading 4% a day in this mode.

Basically a cron job sending you silent pushes is a cron replacement for iOS. At least as for iOS 8.3, this is the best you can get (unless you're writing a VOIP app and have full background capabilities).

I decided to opt-out of this model for several reasons:

  • It sounds hacky
  • It can easily fail an App Store review
  • Push notifications do not come for free. You need to either run your own server or pay some push notification service.
  • I also don't like the fact that the updates happen at regular intervals, not taking user's actual interest in account.

Better silent push notifications

I figured that one can actually offload most of the work to the server and only send push notifications when your snapshot has actually changed. This is a far cleaner approach and saves precious battery life and traffic.

If only I had resources to learn web development, I'd love to try that out. There are some obvious problems with this approach: the web pages are rendered differently in different browsers; the web server load can easily get out of hand, plus web hosting is not free; backend has to store user's URLs.

Background URL Sessions

I am currently testing an absolutely different approach. The idea is to start a background URL session and fire up a connection at such a moment that the extension gets killed before the request finishes. From Extension programming guide :

In iOS, if your extension isn’t running when a background task completes, the system launches your containing app in the background and calls the application:handleEventsForBackgroundURLSession:completionHandler: app delegate method.

So you schedule the request, and the NSURLSession launches your app in background for you to act on the downloaded data. From there you have something like 30 seconds of background execution and a reasonable amount of resources, such as RAM.

I've tried scheduling a network request to a background session in viewWillDisappear: of my widget and strangely it worked. I've been running this funky build for a week and the widget's info is almost always not older then an hour or two. The updates are about as recent as I look at Today extension tab, which is good enough. As for the battery usage, it seems to be about 2% (but then it actually launches far fewer times a day then the silent push build, which runs every 15 minutes)

I'm currently looking for beta-testers for my app because this approach looks very promising to me. It is almost perfect in my scenario: the updates are failry recent (multiple times a day), do not require any external services and as secure as your phone itself. I need some field testing before rushing to the App Store though 😃.