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  • The iPad Report: Now About Multitasking

    February 8th, 2010

    You can bet the critics were howling when Apple’s press event and product information on the iPad failed to mention multitasking. How, then, do you run more than a single app at the same time? What if you need to integrate the content you create in, say, Pages with Numbers? Isn’t this all a throwback to the original Mac in 1984? Does Steve Jobs have an innate hatred of multitasking, just as he seems to abhor Adobe Flash?

    Now in the old days, once multitasking got the official OK from Apple with MultiFinder, it was a cooperative system. That meant that each app had to play nicely with others when more than one was running. Most of the time the system worked well enough, although there were more than a few times when things came to a screeching halt.

    With Mac OS X, the Unix core of the operating system is the traffic cop. So errant applications are limited in how they can mess up your Mac, which is not to say things are perfect, although switching from one to another should be a pretty seamless process. Indeed this preemptive scheme is a whole lot more efficient than cooperative, particularly when lots of apps are running at the same time.

    Although Apple adapted Mac OS X for the iPhone, multitasking remains extremely limited. Not that it’s nonexistent, as implied by some less-informed tech pundits. Just watch those TV ads showing someone talking on the phone and checking Mail or Safari at the same time (which requires a 3G network of course). But when it comes to third-party apps, you can run only one at a time. Apple’s logic is that too many apps will drag down system performance and suck too much battery life.

    Now it’s true that other smartphones somehow manage to support multitasking, although I gather there are also apps available that let you systematically quit apps when things get out of hand. So much for an efficient method, and I haven’t seen battery life estimates that account for lots of apps running at the same time.

    Then again, how many iPhone users are actually suffering as a result of today’s minimal multitasking setup? I suppose if you’re in the middle of a Skype conversation and you need to do something else, this may present a problem, not that there have been an avalanche of complaints.

    When it comes to the iPad, you’d think that, since it’s closer in concept to a regular personal computer and far more powerful than the iPhone, Apple might relent and implement a robust multitasking system. But so far they’re not mentioning the “M” word, although I suppose that things might change before actual product ships from the factory.

    As a practical matter, the need for multitasking can probably be minimized largely by the OS suspending an app when you’re not using it, along with the use of Push Notification to allow the apps that aren’t actually running to communicate to you. This setup works rather well with AOL’s AIM. Even when the app isn’t running, I’m still logged into the system for the length of time specified in the apps preferences. When someone sends me a message, I get a popup notice. Of course if I press View to return to AIM, that step suspends any other third-party app I’m using at the time, but in the real world it’s not so irritating.

    Now to be fair to Apple, they do seem to eventually figure out that customers may not like something and they will add or change a feature when necessary. So after a couple of years of clamoring for cut, copy and paste, Apple found a way to provide that feature in the iPhone OS, though I still regard the method as exceedingly awkward. But I don’t pretend to be an interface designer, and I can’t imagine that I’d be able devise a workable alternative.

    There are also published reports that iPhone 4.0, no doubt due some time in the late spring or early summer, will introduce a full-fledged multitasking system for Apple’s mobile devices. That would satisfy those who object to the present way of doing things, assuming that stability isn’t negatively impacted.

    But I do want to say flat-out that I do not believe Steve Jobs truly hates multitasking and is engaged in a secret plot to wean us from that dreadful habit. That would be perfectly absurd in any way you look at it, not to mention totally illogical. I mean if the iPhone and iPad could be easily made to multitask in the same fashion as the desktop version of Mac OS X, why would Apple withhold that capability?

    The objections they’ve made, about performance and battery life, definitely make sense. On the other hand, I’m not a programmer either, and perhaps those of you who are would explain whether Apple’s concerns are valid or whether it’s all smoke and mirrors.

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