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  • The Great Multitasking Myth

    March 18th, 2010

    If you can believe the critics, Apple penchant for control may be so paranoiac that they deliberately withhold multitasking from their mobile devices. After all, how can you be allowed to run more than one app at a time, unless it’s from Apple of course? Wouldn’t that interfere with — well, something or other?

    If you’ve seen one of those recent iPhone spots in the U.S., you’ll notice that Apple is actually extolling the gadget’s multitasking features, by showcasing the ability to take a phone call, and manage email or check a Web site at the same time. So you have someone making a dinner reservation while waiting for someone to answer your call, or perhaps preventing a potential problem with one’s significant other by ordering flowers in time for an anniversary celebration.

    The main point of this spot is the fact that you can do that with AT&T’s 3G system, but not the one owned by Verizon Wireless. That’s an issue of network architecture that can’t be changed until Verizon migrates to the next-generation wireless technology, which is when the rumors suggest they’ll get a chance to offer the iPhone too.

    However up till now Apple has prohibited third parties from sharing in the multitasking joy. The best they can do is to send a Push Notification message to alert you of, say, an incoming instant message from AIM while you’re working in another app. As limited as this is, that notification arrives when you’re doing something else. It is multitasking, and OS X, the foundation of the iPhone OS, is a classic Unix-based preëmptive multitasking operating system.

    So what’s the problem? After all other mobile platforms multitask almost across the board? So why not Apple?

    The explanation from Apple — some call it an excuse — is that allowing other apps to run willy-nilly would result in excessive resource use and shortened battery life. Now this is about control, certainly, the desire to provide a seamless user experience. There would be no motive to omit across-the-board multitasking if such concerns weren’t true. After all, what does Apple gain to block such a feature, since competing mobile platforms are using it for bragging rights?

    Yes, it’s true. Phones featuring Google’s Android OS and other smartphones let you run multiple apps without apparent restriction. I’ve heard different stories about how well they do. Some suggest the experience is just fine, thank you, while others point out that it’s far too easy to have too many apps working at once, which seriously impairs performance and battery life. Indeed, there are apps that help you manage resources more efficiently, but why should you have to bother yourself with such nonsense? Wouldn’t you rather have something that just works, even if a few frills might be lacking?

    Now this doesn’t mean that the iPhone doesn’t manage the multiple app situation in a workable fashion. When you’re running one app and need to start another, you return to Home and then launch the next one. This action will rapidly quit the previous app before the new one is launched. It’s a tribute to the solid programming of the iPhone OS that the existing app switch scheme seems to work fast enough that it’s not so awkward a process.

    However, what if you’re using the app that allows you to edit your WordPress blog and then you need to check a new email message, after hearing a notification tone? Well in this case, the WordPress app does a quick save, so you can recover the material you had edited during the previous session. You still have to scroll to the part of the post you were working on, but you don’t lose anything. With AIM, you go back to whatever function you had used on your previous session, and you also have the option to keep your account logged in at AOL’s servers for a preset amount of time. This way, folks who are looking for you online will find you. You’ll get a Push Notification if they try to ping you.

    In an ideal world, the app ought to be able to resume at the point you left off, to minimize the delay when its relaunched. At the same time, though, this is certainly a clumsy situation, and those of you with lots of apps that you want to use in rapid fashion are apt to feel constrained.

    Now I don’t know how many complaints Apple receives about multitasking, and of those, how many are confined to so-called power users. I wonder if the average user cares so much, so long as everything is running fluidly.

    In saying that, however, there are rumors afoot that Apple is working on enhancing iPhone OS multitasking for version 4.0. Certainly it’ll make a load of sense for the far more powerful iPad, where you’re apt to actually want to have several productivity apps open at the same time, such as Pages and Numbers. I’m curious to see if and how Apple expands the ability to run multiple apps.

    Of course, whatever solution they devise, some people will just complain anyway.

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