Here's an exclusive TUAW video preview of Urban Airship's latest product, AirMail. Like their other products, AirMail is powered by a precompiled drop-in library that developers add to their iPhone applications. AirMail adds a whole new spin on push notifications by transforming them from lightweight messaging into a more durable and interactive product.
Normally push notifications give a simple heads-up to users along the lines of "You have mail" or "Someone tweeted your name." AirMail goes further. It uses the iPhone's push notification infrastructure to enhance two-way communications between service providers and their customers.
As this video shows, push notifications are no longer throwaway products. Using AirMail, they can be stored and referenced through an in-app library. Applications can create message histories that persist well beyond the life of a normal push message. What's more, those notifications can involve the user in a multi-directional process, whether confirming that they have taken their pills (as shown here), are ready to take a meeting, or that they acknowledge that a security alarm was triggered in error, among other uses.
What makes this product particularly useful is that it more meaningfully and helpfully breaks through the limitations of Apple's one-app-at-a-time policy. AirMail uses Push in a way that doesn't end when the user acknowledges the notification and launches the application. Instead, AirMail jumps off from the notification, using it as a trigger to begin a user interaction sequence.
It's a given that Apple's remote notification service is unreliable. It's not designed for critical path uses. (For example, new messages can displace older messages from the delivery queue, so messages that are "delivered" might not arrive on a user's device.) So it's nice to see that Urban Airship has engineered an understanding about delivery problems into their AirMail product. I like the way the video showcases the medical application that requires user confirmation that he or she has taken the specified dosages. Should a user not respond in a timely fashion, that particular service is set up to re-issue notifications as needed.
The video here also demonstrates some simpler solutions including coupons, which I thought was brilliant. Transforming notifications into a durable coupon that can be retrieved from the AirMail library at a later time is clearly something that any marketing person can see the advantage of. It melds timeliness and immediacy with a tangible win for both user and sponsor.
Urban Airship has built their business on providing mobile developers with easy-to-use drop-in solutions for mobile commerce and push notifications. For a small fee that scales with usage, they provide the web infrastructure that connects iPhone apps to Apple's remote notification service and in-app purchase fulfillment through REST calls. You can stop by their website for more information about the various services they offer.
It looks like AirMail is going to be a nice addition to their product list, regardless of whether Apple eventually allows multiple 3rd party applications to run at once or not. That's because having an opt-in Web service-based solution for applications that aren't yet running is a sweet add-in to any OS.