Wherever you go, there you are: location reminders in OmniFocus

by Brian on October 14, 2011

Howdy, everybody! With a new release of iOS and new iPhone hardware, there’s been a ton of excitement and news this week; fun times!

In addition to all the cool new stuff Apple’s released, we’ve been able to build a few things using their toys that we hope will also be pretty exciting; I wanted to take a few moments and tell you about one of them. Specifically, the new location-based notifications we’ve added to OmniFocus for iPhone 1.12 and OmniFocus for iPad 1.4!

One of the first things we added to OmniFocus was time-based reminders; it wasn’t too long after that that folks asked for location-based ones as well. In fact, the first request we got for location-based reminders was back in May of 2007, before we’d even shipped version 1.0 of the Mac app! Over the years, we got more requests, especially once OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad appeared - wouldn’t it be great if the device you were carrying around in your pocket could tell where you were and remind you of the things you needed to do?

The first couple versions of iOS mostly made use of location data on maps. It was useful - you could create a context for a pharmacy you used, add the address, and see a dot on the map if any actions needed doing. You had to remember to look at the map screen, though. With iOS 4, it started to look like the pieces we needed to add the feature were coming together - that version of the OS had the ability to monitor location information and notify an application when the device was in a certain area. We did some preliminary work towards implementing location reminders; the feature worked and didn’t use much battery charge, but it became apparent it wasn’t as fast or as accurate as we hoped. We decided to pause work on the feature.

We were pretty excited by some of the changes Apple made in their recent hardware, though; they found a way to improve the accuracy of location monitoring without using more power. Specifically, the iPhone 4 (and 4S) include a feature called “region monitoring”, which lets them track the devices’ location via GPS without running down the battery. iPad 2 models with 3G also have this capability. Unfortunately, devices released before then don’t have a low-power way to monitor their location as accurately, so they won’t be able to use this type of reminder in OmniFocus. (The Reminders app included in iOS 5 has the same limitation.)

Still, if you have a device that supports it, the location reminders can give you an extra nudge, helping you to complete actions you might otherwise forget. Because battery life is a top priority, though, it’s important to remember that the location is only being checked from time to time. If you pass through an area quickly (by driving past it on the highway, for example) you may not get an alert. It’s also important to note that the regions being monitored are fairly broad - the smallest “distance” setting still corresponds to about one city block, and things get more broad from there. Hopefully in the future we’ll have never-fail pinpoint-accuracy location monitoring, but we’re not quite there yet.

Since we shipped this feature, we’ve gotten questions from some customers that are seeing the “your location is being monitored” indicator more often than they used to, and it’s true that it’ll show up more often. As long as you have an available action in a context with a location attached, OmniFocus will stay subscribed to location information, activating that indicator.

The folks that are concerned by this are usually worried that their battery will be drained more quickly, and in previous versions of iOS, that would have been the case. In iOS 5, though, you shouldn’t have to worry as much. Behind the scenes, iOS 5 is handling things. We can’t know the exact details of how it works, but Apple’s stated goal was to be reasonably accurate while minimizing battery drain. The location monitoring indicator is mainly to help you manage your privacy; avoiding battery drain was a useful side-effect. But in iOS 5, the device is better able to conserve the battery.

It may also be helpful to know that OmniFocus’ map view also shows the indicator: that view determines your location more precisely than the location reminders do - you will see some battery impact there. In fact, shortly after shipping the iPhone update, we discovered that the Map view doesn’t remember to stop monitoring your location after you close the view; that actually can cause battery drain! Thanks to the folks that reported this problem - we’ll get an update out that fixes that as soon as possible.

For more details on location reminders, check the new help pages; they’re accessible from the Settings screen in each app. In the meantime, I hope this post helps you decide if location reminders will work for your purposes. Have ideas, suggestions, or concerns? We’d love to know what you think! Drop some comments here, or email our support ninjas; you’re also welcome to ask questions in our forums or on Twitter. Thanks, everyone!