Understanding Multi-tasking on the iPad: What is it really?

by Milind Alvares

Understanding Multi-tasking on the iPad: What is it really?

by Milind Alvares on February 1, 2010

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[tweetmeme]iPad haters harp on two things lacking on the iPad, that most commoners can relate to. One is Flash, and the other, multi-tasking. The first one is as even more irrelevant today as it was back when the iPhone was first announced. Lack of Flash is not going to stop people from having a better internet experience on the iPad. John Gruber sums up the Flash argument nicely.

Multi-tasking on the other hand is a different matter. To be able to perform more than one task on a computer has been heralded since the first GUI based computer first showed up—the Macintosh the MultiFinder extension for the Macintosh in 1988. But it’s a bit hasty call on the iPad’s lack of multi-tasking, when in fact most people don’t understand what it really is. To that end, here’s my take on what multi-tasking means for the end user, and how the iPad will do it surprisingly well. I promise to be eccentric, fanboyistic, and optimistic. You retain right to disagree with me completely.

Multi-tasking is running apps in the background

Let me say this straight up: The iPad (and the iPhone) supports background processes. It supports multiple processes, and it can do this without any adverse effects on your battery life. This capability however, is reserved for built in applications, and not for third party applications. So you can listen to music, receive emails, and have the iTunes app download podcasts while you send out tweets through your twitter client. That’s multi-tasking at the technology level, and the iPad fully supports it. I know you’re disagreeing already, so let’s see what kind of ‘background’ tasks one might perform on a desktop:

  1. Rendering some video, exporting in Quicktime, copying a file. This point is moot on an iPad, because it’s a mobile device, limited in screen size, speed, and battery life. If Apple does create a device for professionals, I’m sure it will allow them to render video while they tick off that task in their GTD app.
  2. Monitoring. People want to keep track of their twitter feed, know when someone wants to get in touch over IM. Stuff like that. Push Notifications. I agree that the current notification system on the iPhone (and iPad I suppose) is the most intrusive one I’ve ever seen, but it’s functional.
  3. Listening to internet radio (and third party music apps). The only real reason to have apps run in the background, seems to be running Pandora radio. It’s everyone’s want. And it’s a valid one. But unless Apple makes an exception for one type of app—which they won’t—I think the trade off is worth it.

What the user gets instead, is increased battery life, sustained performance, and reduced confusion. The battery life and performance issues are evident not only on jailbroken iPhones running more than one third party app at a time, but also on other devices like the Android and the Palm Pre. Perhaps Apple might enable low level background processes in the future, or as Steve Streza suggests, bring in a Dashboard like feature for widgets to supplement that functionality, but as of right now, it’s definitely a beneficial tradeoff.

Moreover, having just one way to quit an application also greatly reduces user confusion. Think of the number of people having open applications in their desktop dock without even knowing it. Or open ‘cards’ on a Pre without knowing that they’re sucking up resources. As Patrick Rhone mentions, on the Mac there are currently 4-5 ways just to quit an application. On the iPhone, it’s just one—press the home button.

Multi-tasking is a workflow

To me, multi-tasking is a workflow. You want to do more than a couple of things at one time. And by one time, I mean “during one session”—because there’s no way you can possibly devote your vision to two tasks. On a desktop computer, I would have a Safari web page open in one window, and floating beneath or beside it, is a TextEdit window. I can research multiple articles using different tabs, all the time copying stuff over to TextEdit for my research. Some variation of this is the most common form of a multi-tasking workflow on a computer.

That above workflow is based on the fact that screen real estate allows you to have more than one window visible at a time. The smaller the screen gets, the kludgier the window management gets, as you constantly have to manage your windows. Apple negates all that in the iPhone by running every app in full screen. Here’s the kicker. Every iPhone application is already a potentially a pre-launched fullscreen application window. Think of it in relation to Cmd+Tab on the desktop. It’s where you can switch between all your running applications. With the iPhone, you can see all your applications. Fundamentally that’s the only difference.

The iPhone’s SDK allows an app to keep a totally persistent state. Take Tweetie 2 for instance. It’s like you never really ‘quit’ the application—the app returns to the exact same state you left it in—yet the OS makes sure Tweetie isn’t sucking up any precious mobile resources and battery life, along with the simplification of user interface workflows. This way of ‘multi-tasking’ may not be so apparent on the iPhone (although I hear the 3GS is quite there), but the iPad’s speed improvements. Andy Ihnatko impressions:

Fast. Fast, fast, fast. I did absurd things, like zoom in and out of webpages with fast twitches of my finger tips. The iPad kept right up with me, millisecond by millisecond. When you drag something, you feel like you’re physically sliding a photo across a surface; no need to wait for the OS to catch up with you. When you turn the iPad, the screen switches display modes almost instantly.

But the iPad’s multi-tasking is more than just speed. It’s a brand new user interface bringing in a new a new workflow. Something that’s simple, logical, focussed, and human. It’s multi-tasking dictated by end goals. What are you trying to achieve on this device? The iWork applications exhibit completeness within the user interface, including the media browser, file manager, and I’m sure it can send those documents as attachments via email as well. The iPad is definitely not just a bigger iPhone, and even thinking its multi-tasking workflow will be alike is (I think) a mistake.

Letting go of the old; making way for the new.

Instead of holding on to your old notions of how computers should work, take a look at what the new offers. The iPad is a half inch thick device, with multi-touch, forever connected to the internet, simplified, focussed, affordable, and most importantly, can be superbly productive. Sure it won’t be just as efficient and productive as your desktop or laptop, and that’s why they will continue to remain production machines, but given the iPad’s size and mobility, I think the lack of traditional multi-tasking is anything but bad design.

I suppose we all have to wait and see what the device feels like, and more importantly, how developers take advantage of its added screen real estate. But I have full faith in the Apple developer community to bring out some real surprises in the way we use the iPad.

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