iPad and Multitasking

I talked about the iPad’s multitasking features in my Sun-Times review — in a couple of places, I think.

Here’s the most complete explanation, from the main piece:

The first problem should be put in air quotes. The iPad certainly does support multitasking. The iPod app plays music in the background of anything else you’re doing and if you download a movie from the iTunes Store, you can navigate away from that app and do something else during the time it’ll take to grab that 1 gigabyte file.

It’s just third party apps that can’t run in the background. Which presents a few annoyances, such as when I’d like to listen to music from a streaming media app while I work elsewhere.

Apple has removed background operation of third-party apps for sensible reasons: they say it makes any mobile platform less stable and kills the battery. I happen to believe that later this year, Apple will release an update to the iPhone OS that will introduce some form of third-party multitasking that avoids these problems. So I’m confident that in time, at least, this limitation will be lifted.

More of a problem: the iPad is, by its nature, a “one window” interface. You can’t open a movie and have it playing in a corner of the screen while you write. If you want to instant message people, it won’t be a little sidebar that you keep an eye on; it’ll be the whole screen. This is another defining difference between the iPad and a notebook. It’s the same amount of power, but applied with different intentions.

So it disappoints me to see commentators on TV today dinging the iPad for a lack of multitasking. A tech expert whose mission is to communicate tricky technology to civilian audiences can’t let that pitch go by with a flat “no.” You also shouldn’t offer a flat “yes” but at least the statement “the iPad OS multitasks” is technically correct. You’re there to educate. Which means that you don’t want people to come away thinking that (for example) iPod playback stops when you try to get your mail or fire off a Tweet.

I’m glad to hear the increasingly-loud rumors that Apple has figured out how they want to do third-party multitasking. A signature of Apple’s design philosophy is not to just fire-hose features into a product. They like to believe that if they add something, it contributes way more value than what its presence will cost the user, and that the feature is consistent with the “story” of this product. I’ve seen Android tablets with every kind of port and other hardware feature built-in. Mostly, their purpose is to be something that the marketers and the users can point to and say “See? Look what this has that yours doesn’t.”

Sometimes they actually enhance the device. Mostly, though, they’re like a third nipple. Good for conversation, but functionally useless.