Boxcar: Finally, Twitter Push Notifications That Work

It’s been more than a month since Apple released the iPhone OS 3.0 update, which introduced push notifications. Push notifications allow an app to notify the user of a new message or other important information via sounds, badges, or alert messages. These push notifications are most useful for messaging apps when timely response is necessary.

It only fits then, that Twitter is the ideal app category for push notifications. Much like push e-mail, Twitter mentions and DMs would be more useful if the user was instantly notified of a new message. After more than a month and several app updates, none of the major Twitter apps yet support any push notifications. Rather, several odd entries into this market have surfaced including a popular IM app and an app that pushes mentions and DMs only if the other person is also using the same app.

Boxcar app splash screen

Just recently, another entry to capitalize on the Twitter push notification market has debuted: Boxcar (see JAiB’s first look at Boxcar, written by Patrick, here). Boxcar is a very simple app, yet it is probably one of the most important apps on my iPhone now. Rather than trying to be a replacement Twitter app, Boxcar is rather limited in what it does: upon first launch, you are asked to give the app permission to send you push notifications, link to your Twitter account using OAuth, and that’s it. There’s a minimal settings screen where you choose which Twitter app you use. At this time, there are only two choices: Tweetie and Twitterrific. That’s it. [update 7/24/09: Boxcar 1.1 update adds support for three more Twitter apps]

Boxcar app settings

Behind the scenes, Boxcar will (according to their website) poll your Twitter account every 2 minutes for new DMs and mentions. When it detects one, it will send a push notification to your device. When you view the notification, the app will launch your Twitter app of choice, in my case Twitterrific Premium. In essence, Boxcar adds push notifications to my existing Twitter app. This allows me to continue using my favorite Twitter app of choice, as well as take advantage of instant notification of a new DM or mention.

Boxcar push notification message appears over the top of my email inbox; I have a new Twitter mention. Tap View to open Twitterrific and read message.

When I first installed and began using Boxcar, I had some problems with some mentions and DMs not being pushed to my device. After a brief e-mail exchange with Jonathan George (the creator of Boxcar) we figured out that my issues were caused by the fact that I was testing several other Twitter apps at the same time, and had maxed out my allocated Twitter API calls in an hour. Boxcar also uses these API calls, so if your Twitter apps use up all available APIs, then Boxcar will be unable to access your account and poll for new DMs and mentions until after the API cycle resets. Once we figured this out and resolved the issue, I have had no further problems.

I am very surprised that even more than a month after push notifications were turned on at Apple, the only Twitter apps to take advantage of it are the smaller independent developers. Well, if the larger apps don’t catch up, these small apps may claim the market. In fact, Boxcar might have just done that, in terms of Twitter push notifications. Boxcar does what it’s designed to do, very well in fact. It pushes all my DMs and mentions to my iPhone, and when I view the notification message, it launches Twitterrific. That’s all I’ve been asking for. And Boxcar delivered.

Boxcar is listed on the App Store for $1.99 (link) [update 7/24/09: Boxcar is now listed for $2.99] but I’d say it’s worth that plus another $5! Luckilly for us though, it is only 1.99, so save the other five for an iced coffee. And quit launching Tweetie or Twitterrific every 5 minutes to see if you have any new DMs or mentions. Just relax, Boxcar will let you know when you get something.

/Josh