Multitasking and the iOS

December 26th, 2012

During the discussions about the multitasking limitations in the iOS, some of you may have forgotten that the original Mac didn’t multitask. You ran one application, did your thing, and opened another application to do another thing. But Apple cobbled together something called MultiFinder to answer the call; there were third-party alternatives as well.

Yes, MultiFinder would exacerbate the Mac OS’s tendency to crash, but it was good enough to get the job done. With the arrival of Mac OS 7, MultiFinder was rolled more seamlessly into the Mac OS, so you didn’t have to first set it up manually. With OS X, based on a traditionally multitasking system, Unix, there were no more worries. And for those who think OS X could be more stable, you might be right, but things are a whole lot better than they used to be.

Now even before Apple added limited multitasking support to the iOS, which uses the same fundamentals as OS X, it could multitask. How else could you take a phone call, and check your email at the same time, assuming you were on a wireless carrier that supported the feature? But Apple made it difficult for third parties, since they didn’t want to degrade the user experience. No I don’t think it was a conspiracy to restrict the functionality of those apps, but that isn’t on the radar with the folks at Google, who continue to tout the multitasking features of Android.

Today’s implementation of iOS multitasking answers most needs. True, there are some background tasks you’d like to see run simultaneously, and as the iPhone and iPad gain more powerful processors and memory, you would assume Apple can give you more multitasking features and still keep performance at a high level.

But there is one thing that the iOS still doesn’t let you do, and that’s have two apps active at the same time. When you switch from one app to another, other than possible supported background tasks, the app you left goes into a sort of idle mode or suspend mode. It’s there for instant reuse, but little more.

That approach makes sense on a 3.5-inch or 4-inch iPhone screen. It makes far less sense on the 7.85 and 9.7 iPad displays. Remember that the original multitasking compact Mac had a 9-inch monochrome screen with 512×342 pixel resolution. Handling multiple apps and multiple documents was an exercise in careful screen management, particularly scrolling and window movement, but it was possible. So you’d think that Apple could and should make it happen on the iPad.

Today’s Android device seems to handle multiple apps well enough for most users, since the hardware is more powerful. So perhaps it’s time for Apple to realize that more and more people use the iPad for something more than email, Web surfing and game playing. There are real productivity apps, such as the iWork suite of Pages, Keynote and Numbers. Apple continues to add features to bring them closer to the desktop versions. There are even rumors that Microsoft is developing a version of Office to work on the iOS. After all, they tamed it, more or less, for the Surface RT tablet, so why not?

I can see, for example, a way to have a tiny thumbnail showing the open documents in a single app, and it should be easier than double-clicking Home to bring up a list of “idle” apps. But I wouldn’t presume to represent myself as an interface designer. That’s above my pay level, so I’d rather just lobby for the concept, and let Jonathan Ive and the rest of the crew develop the proper interface to make it easy and seamless.

Yes, I understand that Apple doesn’t add features just because someone else has them, and I realize that many of you wouldn’t tolerate a degraded user experience just to get a feature that seems essential. To me, the ability to open multiple documents and instantly switch from one open app to another is essential if you expect to use an iPad for business-oriented chores. It shouldn’t be a one-at-a-time gadget. It’s not as if Apple’s competitors are standing still, and they will continue to boast about every single feature they have that the iOS lacks, whether it works well or not.

I recall, for example, a noisy TV ad for the failed BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. While doing one task, it demonstrated how a movie trailer conveniently played back in another window. It’s not that I couldn’t live without the intrusion of an ad for a movie when I’m otherwise occupied, but RIM managed the task with a clearly inferior OS.

I suppose some of you can go through your personal multitasking wish list and come up with other changes you really want Apple to act on. But consider that Apple had pretty decent multitasking on a personal computer that, nowadays, we’d regard as extremely primitive. But it worked well enough, so I’m sure Apple is perfectly capable of coming up a superior multitasking scheme for iOS 7.

Assuming they’re listening to us, of course.

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