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iOS Multitasking: It Doesn’t Need To Be PC-like

In a recent article on his personal blog, Lukas Mathis argues that the iPad’s multitasking doesn’t actually help people get things done and focus more as it forces you to constantly switch between apps. He writes:

a task (or an app) on a computer, and a task performed by a human don’t map to each other one-to-one. In fact, a single task performed by a human can easily make use of several applications running concurrently on a computer.

For example, right now, I’m typing this text in Notational Velocity, and I’m looking at the New York Times in a browser. The computer is showing me two windows at the same time. It is multitasking. I, however, am not. I’m absolutely focused on writing this essay. In fact, the computer’s multitasking is precisely what allows me to focus on writing my essay. I can type text into this window while looking at the Times article in another window without being forced to interrupt my task, and consciously switch between apps.

This is a common point being raised by people curious to try out iOS, but afraid it won’t help them be productive: “can I see multiple apps at once”? No, with iOS you can’t. And the way I see it, there’s good reason to enforce this implementation. First off, let’s consider the devices iOS runs on: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Apple TV. The Apple TV 2nd gen doesn’t exactly have apps and I don’t understand why would anyone want to see multiple photos and movies at once. The iPhone and iPod touch? The screen is so small (in spite of high resolution) I honestly can’t believe some people are exploring the possibility of seeing multiple apps on a single screen. It doesn’t make sense.

That leaves the iPad to be considered. With a screen slightly smaller than the average netbook, one could argue Apple should find a way to let multiple apps / windows be displayed on screen at the same time. There is a huge problem, though: how would you enable this technically speaking? By creating desktop-like overlays? Not going to happen on iOS. What about allowing apps to run in split-screen mode? Developers would need to provide a split-screen version of their apps – thus forcing them to design for another resolution / user experience. It’s easy to say “I want the same windows I have on my Mac on the iPad” or “Apple should have done this differently”. Considering the nature of the App Store ecosystem, this PC-like approach is not possible for now.

What about the future? Maybe, but not windows in the way we’re used to them today. I think there’s plenty of room for innovation on iOS and Apple is certainly playing around with hundreds of methods to let users be more productive and access more information on screen easily, but we shouldn’t forget the underlying philosophy of iOS: the device becomes the app you’re running. This helps some people stay focused, but gives everyone the illusion they’re not using a cellphone or a tablet but an “app console”. With this in mind, take a look at Lion and its fullscreen apps and don’t tell me Apple is heavily betting on “the iOS way”. So what about the multitasking Mathis refers to? I think we’ll have a way with iOS 6 or iOS 7 to “merge” apps together to access information with literally one tap. Basing on the current hardware designs from Apple and assuming no revolutions in screen size will happen until 2013, I’d like to throw out some ideas.

Mathis writes:

The fact that the iPad only lets me see one app at a time often does not help me focus. Instead, it forces me to switch between apps constantly, thus preventing me from focusing on my task. Every time I have to deal with the iPad’s task switching, I’m interrupted.

Surprisingly, the problem for many has become “switching” between apps – the feature millions of customers wanted back in the iPhone OS 3 days. Sarcasm aside, let’s play along with the argument. If Apple had to improve the switching experience on a current-generation iPhone 4 or iPad 2, what would the implementation look like? Definitely not windows, for the reasons listed above. An idea: changing the multitasking tray from a horizontal bar of icons to a series of app previews overlaying the main application. Yes, pretty much like the webOS or the BlackBerry PlayBook. A problem comes to mind immediately, though: with low-res screens, the tiny previews don’t really help getting more information without switching to another app. Visual previews with hardware limitations make for a pretty feature, but not a useful one. Plus, the “cards” UI on webOS doesn’t sit on top of the app you were previously using – it’s yet another detached interface to switch between apps.

So here’s another possible implementation: what if Apple found a way to “Quick Look” apps paused in the background? Imagine this: you open the multitasking interface, you double tap on an icon, you get an instant almost-fullscreen, Quick Look preview of that app. With the recent improvements to Quick Look Apple made in Lion, I can see the technology being deeply implemented in the future versions of iOS. Quick Look for multitasking wouldn’t eliminate the need of opening a separate UI, but the “switching” part could benefit from this. But, then again, everything comes down to a bigger problem: a nice way to see more than one app at a time is cool, but what about getting the information into the first app?

That’s why I think the biggest addition Apple could make to multitasking isn’t a new design – rather, the possibility of easily sharing data between applications. In a future version of iOS, apps could become aware of each other and let users share information between them effortlessly without even noticing a change in the UI. By overcoming the need of windows and multitasking objects on screen, apps talking to each other would allow us to share data with gestures, in the same fullscreen mode we know and love, without having to activate a special multitasking interface. You can see a first implementation of this in iOS 4: the “Open In…” menu that lets you forward documents to other apps. Now take the Open In menu, make it system-wide and enabled by default in any app, and think about the possibilities of real communication between apps. I’m talking about things even more powerful than a Services menu for iOS: imagine being able to invoke an instance of 1Password inside Safari without actually installing an extension or bookmarklet. Or MobileMe sharing and uploading functionalities enabled in any app. This, combined with a quick way to preview apps and documents you’re not actively focused on, should provide a great way to be more productive on iOS and not feel the need for “windows” on your screen.

In spite of several iOS applications still resembling their PC counterparts, leading users to wonder why a specific function doesn’t behave in a certain way, I don’t think the key to iOS multitasking is imitating the PC. It’s never been like that, and Apple’s vision of personal computing is now changing as well. I wouldn’t mind seeing iOS multitasking become something less UI-centric, and more data-based.

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