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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5 Responses to “The Great Multitasking Myth”

  1. shane says:

    i notice evry time i leave an app and return it is at exactly the same place as what I left it which suits me fine. It doesnt seem to clear the info out on my apps at least that I use so I dont even see what advantage multitasking would be. As you say mail ipod and phone multitask. I am happy and cant see a need to multitask anything else. It seems Microsoft is happy to copy the functions of the iphone , even leaving copy and paste out of their windows 7 mobile phones. So they are still behind but at the point apple was a year or so ago.

  2. hmurchison says:

    Aren’t Tech Writers supposed to be able to understand and articulate the issues involved with Multitasking on the iPhone?

    There are indeed ramifications for multitasking that extend from the core right on out to the user interface. It’s not like you just say “come one …come all” and you’re multitasking well.

    I think it’s more like just another talking point to deride Apple where they can.

  3. Louis Wheeler says:

    It’s all a part of the Anti-Apple FUD machine, Gene. There are a series of such myths. Every myth is based on being a “half lie.” The half lie leaves out vital information which prevents you from ascertaining the truth.

    The half lie about multi-tasking is that only third party apps are prohibited from taking part. The proper accusation ought to be, “Apple doesn’t have third party multi-tasking.” That would be true.

    As I see it, the only way for Apple to put this half lie to rest is to give users more control. We need to be able to select which third party apps can be multitasked or run in background. After Apple warns us about the effects of our choices, then we take responsibility. If our battery dies or our performance goes into the toilet, then Apple can throw that back into our faces. “Dummy, you are the one at fault here, not me.”

    Eventually, we users will limit ourselves in accord with our resources and we’ll all be winners. We must accept the trade offs from running such apps.

    Another half lie is about Flash on multitouch devices. The assumption here is that Apple is preventing a Flash plug-in from being placed on the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.

    The problem is that people are ignorant of the fact that Adobe creates the Flash plug-ins; It cannot make Flash to work on multi-touch devices for technical reasons. Flash is old technology which requires a mouse hover to work and there are no mice on multi-touch devices. This is no one’s fault, since new technologies are always being marketed. But, it is a lie to distort the facts in blaming this on Apple.

    The next half lie is that Apple is unnecessarily restricting the App Store. Every store screens its products and services to verify quality, serviceability and value to the customer; pre screening determines the reputation of the store’s brand name and image. Neiman Marcus is no less restrictive than Apple.

    Apple needs to promote its efforts in protecting its customers without violating its customers rights. This means that Parental Controls need to be extended to the App store. Parents should be able to limit their children’s access to racy or sexy Apps. Hence, Apple needs an adults only section as well as a children’s section. But, this controversy is merely part of the App store’s amazing growth. It will be resolved.

    Another half lie is about the utility of the Apple market. The Phrase being bandied about is that Apple creates a “Walled Garden” and somehow that is bad in that it restricts consumer choices. What the half lie neglects to mention is that outside the Garden Wall is the chaos of the Internet. The FOSS community have taken it as a given that chaos is a good thing for them. That might be so, but most computer users will never have FOSS’s values or competence.

    Most of us computer users want to get our work done as easily, cheaply and safely as possible. The best place to do that is inside an island of safety and security. Apple needs to throw the question back into FOSS’s face. It needs to promote that Apple is providing a haven from the Internet’s woes.

    The last half lie is about Apple security. Mac OSX is not, as Mr Miller of Intego recently said, like a farm house out in the sticks without locks on its doors.

    If it were so easy to take over the Mac OSX operating system, then the Mac would be constantly under attack and it is not. The Mac has no active malware “in the wild” and never has. Only two Trojan horses were created for the Mac in the last five years. Meanwhile, Windows is plagued by over a half million such malware problems. Only fools would look at the situation and choose Windows over a Mac.

    What Mr Miller does at ConSecWest is foist a fraud for publicity reasons. The Mac is never compromised remotely. It requires that Mr Miller be in physical contact with the computer. He must be logged in as an administrator. This means that his methods can never be used for mass distribution of malware. Every Mac must be taken over one at a time and this will never happen.

    The next fraud is that the vulnerabilities which Mr Miller uses in Mac OSX’s UNIX foundations, the Safari browser and in third party Apps are never used to compromise the security of the operating system. A vulnerably does not automatically mean an exploit as can happen on Windows. The Mac has many layers of security. You can have a vulnerability in an application which merely shuts down that app, so that no harm is done.

    We Mac users should not be complacent about this, but history says that we have no need to panic, either.

    Sometime in the next six months, Apple will be booting into the 64 bit kernel, by default, which will give us much enhanced security: ASLR, DEP and the Sand-boxing of applications and processes in its own virtual machine. These will not happen out of any real need, since the Mac is not under attack like Windows is. This is a way of preventing the FUD machine from decrying their lack.

    I’m happy to have ASLR, DEP and Sand-boxing, because these will allow Apple to shut down holes in security which are hangovers from the original Mac OS. One such hole is the ability of a person with physical access to a Mac, who has an Installation DVD, to assume total control. Apple changed its installation procedure in Snow Leopard to install the disk in a virtual machine before asking questions of the user.

    I can imagine where Apple can take this. One day, the computer user must prove that they have permission to make changes in the software; they must prove that they are the owner or have permission from the owner. Small Business Owners would value this on lost or stolen computers. They would want their data protected and encrypted from snoopers inside, or outside, their companies. They want the Mac to be disabled when it is under attack.

    The improved 64 bit security will allow this, but Apple is not saying much, yet. I can hardly blame then, given the many lies which abound about Apple. It is better for Apple to wait until it can provide proof of its technologies.

  4. Joe Anonymous says:

    I’m still waiting for someone to explain WHY you need third party multitasking on the iPhone or iPad. These are not full-service computers, but rather media delivery devices and to a much lower level, simple communication creation (mail, iWork) creating devices. The things that require multitasking of third party apps just don’t apply.

    You can check your email while you play a game. You can listen to music while you read a book. You can receive a text message while browsing the web. You can talk on the phone while browsing or playing a game.

    OTOH, you will NOT be playing a game at the same time as browsing the web. You will not be looking at photos at the same time as you are playing a game (although you might switch back and forth a few times – which is allowed). You’re not going to be listening to music at the same time as you’re watching a movie. Those things just don’t make sense – no matter how many times pundits claim that they’re important.

    In addition to the reasons cited by Apple (battery life and performance), the idea of keeping third party apps sandboxed provides an additional layer of protection against bad apps – you can’t have a background app freeze up your system. If the app is in the foreground and freezes your system, it’s obvious what’s going on. This is a huge advantage in eliminating the ‘my iPhone is slow and I can’t browse the web’ kinds of customer support calls.

    Until someone comes up with something that you’re likely to do on the iPhone or iPad that requires third party multitasking, I hope Apple continues to block it.

  5. Louis Wheeler says:

    I’m guessing, Joe, that this complaint has less to do about a particular problem, than having something to complain about Apple. The smart phone manufacturers must have something to differentiate their products, realistic or not. Sometimes, it is just their sour grapes.

    So, they pick on the ramifications of multitouch technologies, such as Flash, or from the limitations of a mobile phone, in case of third party multitasking. Then, they twist the criticism to leave out vital information.

    It hardly matters what the criticism is, they can’t very well going around saying, “People like the iPhone better than my phone, can they?” The question is why so many people in the Tech Press are willing to repeat this bogus information. Partly, it that they get noticed without being called on their position. They don’t get punished for being part of the FUD machine.

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