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.

53 thoughts on “iPad and Multitasking

  1. Casey Ayers

    We’re actually finishing development now on an app that brings Dashboard-style functionality to the iPad. Out of the gate, it’s going to have functions like Sticky Note, To-Do List, World Clock, Timer, Stopwatch, a to-scale Ruler, Weather, Calculator and more, and we’re going to be adding advanced new features in the weeks after the initial release, free to all users.

    We want to ensure that the app provides a great experience, so we’re waiting until we can test on actual hardware [hurry up, UPS!], but if you’d like to learn more and be informed when we ship later this month, go to MultitaskersApp.com to learn more!

  2. Regina

    The info you offer here is exacly what I seek when I go hunting for tech news and reviews. The ethic you describe is so often missing from Triscuit- to grinder-sized features. So many writers waste my time. I should read Ihnatko first and always. On some level I already knew this, but the distintions you offer here underscore it. Thank you so very much.

  3. David Schnitzer

    I noticed that I can be listening to Car Talk streaming from a radio station in Safari (similar to listening to the iPod app) AND be using the Twitterrific app to read your tweet about multitasking AND click on your blog link in Twitterrific AND read your WordPress blog update about multitasking (I guess Twitterrific has a browser built in) all while listening to Car Talk.
    So somehow the Twitterrific app’s built in browser doesn’t interfere with Safari and allows all these tasks simultaneously.
    Thanks for your terrific thinking and writing.

  4. Grant

    Wow, I was not under the impression that streaming audio from Safari would continue while working in another app. That’s extremely promising. Thanks for that info David!

  5. instig8r

    “Mostly, though, they’re like a third nipple. Good for conversation, but functionally useless.”

    Unless, you gave birth to triplets.

    Evidently, most tech pundits have been imbibing fertility hormones…

  6. JeffMc

    re: David

    Twitterific is actually opening an instance of Webkit in its process, not Safari. Hence Safari running in it’s own process with an instance of WebKit.

    All the multi-tasking apps Apple allows, have the the bit set in the process header to allow to be run in the background. one of the issues with having apps running multi-tasking now, is that sometimes programmers (newer Cocoa/Obj-C ones) tend to not take advantage of some of Cocoa’s abilities to keep battery life good. Such as using NSOperation for multithreading, and to use Aysnchromous methods on separate threads. Most first time programmers of iPhone just bang through it and they do polling, synchronous ops, etc, which tend to drain the battery more. So it makes sense to block these apps, until the programming base learns more and more about how to design a more efficient app for the platform. You would be surprised on how efficient a well designed app that takes advantage of all the technologies Cocoa-Touch provides can be.

  7. Zilbernet

    The description of MLB At Bat for iPad on Apple’s website says it streams game audio while you’re using other apps:

    “Watch live streaming games on the large iPad screen and listen to pitch-by-pitch audio — even when you’re in a different app.”

    This is the first 3rd party app I’ve seen that claims to run in the background. Is it opening its audio stream in Safari?

    http://www.apple.com/ipad/apps-for-ipad/

  8. David

    Grant, streaming audio plays from safari on iPhone in the background right now. Just push home while playing a mp3 stream and open another app

  9. Sam

    The other point to be made here is that when a feature is fire-hosed in half-baked — as for instance, if Apple had turned on 3rd party multi-tasking before they figured out how they really wanted to do it — you’re then stuck with the design limitations of the poorly implemented early release version, because the rest of the software ecosystem grows up around it. This is a sizable chunk of what annoy people about Windows — there are lots of early bad design decisions that they can’t fix because it would break software that presumes on those designs.

    As annoying as it is to wait for it, at least once we get it it will likely be something we actually like.

  10. Mike11

    The iPad doesn’t need multitasking. It just needs OS-level state saving, a quick app switching mechanism (for last used apps, favorites etc.), better notifications and a background audio streaming api that apps like Pandora can use.

  11. brookr

    I’d love to see a 5-finger swipe gesture to allow you to switch between “open” apps, the way 1-finger swipe goes between home screens.

    Or maybe just a way to jump back to the previously opened app? Quicker app switching (without going through the home screen [and finding the right home screen if you have many]) would simulate mutlitasking pretty darn well…if the app developers preserve state on close (like the wondrous Tweetie does so well).

  12. russell

    Look what Josh, chief moron at Engadget, wrote this morning, the same whining about no multi-tasking and no SD card slot and no USB, the same stupid comments he made two months ago. I just do not understand these people. The iPad is what it is, it’s not supposed to be everything to everyone. That’s why it will succeed.

    Oh, and Topolsky’s mewling that the iPad is a netbook competitor is pointless as well. Again, it’s not. It clearly irks Topolsky so much that the iPad isn’t what he thinks it should be. His whole review is

    I went to the local Apple store this morning to check them out. It is nice. Smooth, very easy to use. Pleasant to hold. Apple is going to sell a ton of these things.

    You’ve done a great job reporting on this Andy. Thanks.

  13. John

    Multitasking is for attention deficit problems and inbox zero freaks. You should do one thing well at a time, just like the iPad. For example, I really like full screen mode in Pages – it lets your focus on your work for a long period of time without distractions. If you’re checking your email more than 2-3 times per day then you’re a slave to the box.

  14. masklinn

    > The iPad doesn’t need multitasking.

    Of course it does. And as the iphone, as Andy pointed out, it has. What it needs right now is an interface to handle multitasking correctly.

    > I’d love to see a 5-finger swipe gesture to allow you to switch between “open” apps, the way 1-finger swipe goes between home screens.

    That’s pretty terrible. Just let the user switch multitasking on, and when in multitasking-allowed mode, home opens the task switcher (using the same style as WebOS: what is currently used for Mobile Safari’s tab, it’s simple, efficient, understandable, in other words perfect)

    > Multitasking is for attention deficit problems and inbox zero freaks.

    Or the guy who’d like to keep pandora running when he’s typing in Pages, or to have his twitter client keep collecting stuff while putting finishing touches to his Keynote presentation. Not to mention, for apps you’re often switching to/from (back and forth) multitasking is a great productivity boon.

    Your saying it’s just for ADD and inbox zero freaks marks your comment as worthless tripe.

  15. Boudica

    Thanks for the report. This is the first discussion I’ve read about what is missing with a lack of multitasking. Most “analysts” simply note its not there – like the Engadget assessment – rather than have a discussion of what they want to do with an iPad that they can’t. It sure puts the lack of 3rd party access to multitasking in perspective.

  16. Noah Ramon

    I’ve noticed several apps that take advantage of the streaming in Safari to stream audio while in another app.(My local NPR affiliate has an app that does that, frex.)

  17. evie

    I have an iPhone. Simply because it can run music in the background does not mean it has meaningful multi-tasking. It allows ONE function to run simultaneously with another, and that function is the iPod only.

    I want to be able to get a phone call while my GPS app is running. I want to be able to open a calculator, or the world clock, without closing all my safari pages. It’s disingenuous to say,”Hey, iPhone does have multitasking — you can listen to music!”

  18. Steve

    I won’t buy one without it. I can using an ipad to surf on the sofa, but not if I can’t have IM going too. This is what I am doing most evenings. Surfing and chatting. The 2 are fully concurrent. If Apple releases iChat and allows it to work alongside Safari, deal.

  19. ndubman

    I switched from my iphone 3g to the palm pre (writing from my pre now) and trust me, multitasking on webOS is impeccable. The advantages are hard to appreciate without real world use.

    I don’t have to interrupt my work to respond to texts, I can add stuff to my calendar and keep my browsers open, and generally switchng between any task at a whim is truly a massive productivity boost. I love it and can’t see myself switching back.

  20. woo

    RE: safari streaming in the background… check out ooTunes Radio, which will let you search from thousands of stations that have safari compatible streams and open them from the app into Safari for “multitasking”. However it’s only available with safari compatible stations and it’s suboptimal, but it does indeed work with many stations.

  21. John

    masklinn, it’s also good to check your twitter feed during sex. It makes it extra productive.

  22. King Monkey

    Sure, most of the proposed use cases for multitasking are bogus, but a handful are not. And the good use cases are really, really, damn near dealbreakingly important: IM clients, for example. An IM client that can’t run behind a web browser precludes some tremendous portion of everyday ordinary computing time.

    And of course there’s the ultimate and most important use for backgrounding, the reason people install process forking hacks on their jailbroken iPhones in the first place: Pandora.

  23. Matt Johnston

    I predict we’ll get multitasking for sure.

    I theorise that it will be similar to the current UI. Some apps will be permitted to run a daemon which can run in the background. These apps will have to be specially engineered and if you think the policy for the App Store is stringent now, just wait til they are rejecting your app for small memory leaks or for using too much CPU. Competent use of Shark will make all the difference.

  24. Mike11

    Yeah, about that 256MB RAM. iFixit changed its site and now it’s 512MB RAM. Just forget everything I wrote about that :/

  25. edythemighty

    The iPad has enough screen real estate that you could pull off having icons representing all currently running apps on a single screen. The thought of swiping through different panels or tabs as you would on a Palm Pre or a jailbroken iPhone scares me.

  26. Charlesgustave

    Thank you for the information. I actually didn’t know this. I just hope that Apple decides to get ahead of the curve with the 3rd party application multitasking sometime in the future, so that issue won’t be a hassle for Mac devices lovers. Thanks… Charles.

  27. giromide

    There’s an old saying that goes something like this: Constraints yield innovation. Conventional wisdom would say that anything built from the same core as Mac OS X had no business running on the hardware of the first two iPhone models. Yet, Apple put only what they knew would work well in iPhone OS 1.x-2.x (ignoring the fact that iPhone OS 2.0 had no business being shipped). iPhone 3GS and iPhone OS 3.x have shown what I believe Apple has intended of the iPhone all along. Hardware and pricing had caught up to their vision of the perfect ultraportable small device.

    I am excited for what Apple has in store for iPhone/iPad OS 4.x exactly because Apple has been slow to introduce third-party multitasking. Prior to this, the state-saving model, when implemented by developers correctly, is pretty darn slick, but the multitasking moratorium paired with Apple’s clumsy handling of Push notifications presents some limitations on things that could just as easily run in the background quietly and “push” even without a network connection. (For example, how much better would it be for Awesome Note to simply run some benign service in the background that can alert you to its to-do items rather than being forced to jump into the app just to update its badge? It’s certainly better for the developers than setting up a tiny server farm somewhere just so users can synch for the sake of Push notifications.)

    I am certain the solution Apple provides will maximize battery life and OS responsiveness while giving developers the flexibility needed to attract and satisfy customers. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer, especially with respect to third party music streaming apps. By no means should Apple offer anything close to real “classic OS multitasking.” It should respect the clean one-screen model Apple is using for iPhone/iPad OS, but it should be clever and seemless enough to make customers happy.

  28. Adam Bridge

    There are times when I do not want to lose context. Let’s say I’m keeping score with an app at a baseball or basketball game. I want to check my e-mail or twitter or MLB.com during a break in the action. I’d like to simply shift to the new application and then come right back without losing context. And that’s the key part. I don’t want to wait for a complex application to come back, do its initialization etc. It’s done that once just 30 seconds ago! I don’t want it to happen again. In ancient terms I want a terminate and stay resident sort of way to keep apps around with their context for some reasonable period of time. But really I’m more hoping for a better solution so switching isn’t as painful as it is now on my iPhone. The more I use my iPhone the more I find myself wanting this.

  29. kruge

    I believe you’ve made a mistake regarding education; the vast majority of tech pundits seem to think that their job is not so much to educate as to increase the level of fear, uncertainty and doubt in their audience. It appears that, in most cases, the techies writing for the major web magazines are way more interested in pushing their own agendas, and education would actually interfere with that aim.

    How else could you explain some of the rabidly anti-iPad articles that have been published since the introduction of the advice? Most of these were from people who have a long history of denying reality in favour of their cause. The same people who bagged out the iPhone and told us how it would be a complete dud are now bagging out the iPad.

  30. Hamranhansenhansen

    > The iPad doesn’t need multitasking. It just needs OS-level state saving, a quick app switching mechanism

    The apps already save state and the home screen is the quick app switching mechanism. Possibly you have an iPhone 3G or original iPhone, but on 3GS and iPad, app switching is faster than on other mobile systems. If you pretend you don’t know about computing technology at all, you can imagine that all of the apps on iPhone are always running all the time, and you are just switching between them using the home screen. That is the world that most iPhone users are happily living in. That is why even the most non-technical users have 50 or more 3rd party apps on their iPhones, when they may have been using a Mac for 10 years and never installed that many 3rd party apps. Most people have more apps on their iPhone home screen than they have in their Mac dock.

    So I think the user interface is correct. I think it’s one of the main reasons that people love their iPhones. It doesn’t force them to manage apps … launching them, quitting them. They just think “I need a map” and they go “home – Maps” or “I want to send an email” and they go “home – Mail”. There is no computerese to navigate through. The idea with the iPhone home screen is that it *is* the task switcher. The user doesn’t “launch” or “quit” apps at all. They just switch between them.

    The thing we have to get through our heads is these mobiles all have 128MB or 256MB or RAM. That’s a 1995 level of RAM in PC terms. An iPhone is essentially running OS X on a 1995 Mac. The other mobiles are doing more traditional tricks to run in that kind of RAM, but switching between 2 apps is as slow or slower there than iPhone. Plus, it is easy to stall the non-iPhone mobiles just by launching apps. On iPhone you can run 50 apps in an hour and when you’re done, you’re still running fine.

    This whole debate is happening only within about 10% of the population that understands WTF we mean when we say “multitasking”. Most iPhone OS users just try an iPhone OS device and they love it. That is why the Apple Stores had to precede these devices. For many users, iPad will be the fastest and most responsive computer they’ve ever used, while at the same time, it will be the most resource-limited minimalist hardware they’ve ever used. A 20 year old user may never have used a computer with less than 1000MB of RAM and they are going to pick up a 256MB iPad and think it screams.

    > It appears that, in most cases, the techies writing for the major web magazines
    > are way more interested in pushing their own agendas

    Yes, and they have a general disdain for the 90% or more of the population that are not computer hackers in any way. There is this pervasive idea that if you are a music hacker, you should have to learn to be an amateur computer hacker in order to make music with computers. It’s like a religion you’re supposed to convert to. Like it’s not enough that you know scales and chords and keys and polyrhythms, you have to also learn bits and bytes or don’t come near the computer. That is the biggest difference with Apple: they create computers that are just as much for music hackers as computer hackers. Any kind of hacker can walk into an Apple Store and walk out with a computer and it already speaks their language, it’s ready to hack the language of music or Python right out-of-the-box.

    Another part of the techie backlash against iPad is that a lot of people make their living by putting band-aids on Windows, and they have been losing clients once they buy a Mac. I have 2 friends who were spending n on a PC, and spending 10n on I-T help over a 2 year working life for that PC, and then spending n again, and then 10n again on I-T, over and over. Then they bought Macs instead, and they didn’t need the I-T help anymore. One of their I-T guys was really, really pissed at the loss of business that represented for him, and even refused to help her move her files over to the Mac from the previous PC, so she went to Apple and they did it for free. The other called up her old I-T guy whom she hadn’t seen in a long while and asked him about iPad and he told her it can’t do email and is just a toy for kids, she should get a netbook running Windows!

    So these guys are scared of losing their livelihoods. Who needs a nerd to explain Apple gear to them? Not iGeneration, I can tell you that. So I think a lot of techies actually relish the idea to point out the ways in which they feel an iPhone OS system is not a “real computer,” sort of like a little dig in the ribs of all the people who are productively computing without asking for or requiring the blessing of techies.

  31. abu

    @Hamranhansenhansen: nice comment, but just to put it straight, 256 mb of ram was an insane amount in 1995. Most consumer machines and OSes would barely support it. A 16 or 32mb desktop was quite “pro” level. Most Macs came with 8mb preinstalled at the time. To put it into perspective, my entry level iMac came with 64mb preinstalled in 2000.

  32. akatsuki

    State saving won’t be enough. I want an IM chat going in the background, and, frankly, even the minimal amount of time it might take to launch won’t be fast enough. I want to GPS track myself on my iPhone while I do other stuff. And those are just two things I can’t do right now.

  33. James

    The iPad is just a bigger, faster iPod Touch. And, what a beautiful thing that is. Pure perfection. Anyone complaining about multitasking or flash or USB is just missing the point — and pissing in the wind. Computing will never be the same.

  34. Allan White

    The iPad doesn’t need multitasking. It just needs OS-level state saving, a quick app switching mechanism (for last used apps, favorites etc.), better notifications and a background audio streaming api that apps like Pandora can use.

    This nails the solution IMHO. Unless you’re actually processing something in the background (say, filtering a video clip, which I’d like to make an app to do), or streaming audio (API suggestion is great) – it’s all perception. State-saving, if effectively implemented, renders much of this conversation moot.

  35. addicted

    Good post.

    A classic example is Copy/Paste. The iPhone OS did not offer copy paste for an exceedingly long time. However, when they did add it a year ago, the implementation is still eons better than anything the competition has to offer…

  36. Emma

    Not implementing a very important feature just because it “drains the battery” is a 12 year olds answer to a question. Of course it drains the battery, everything you do on it drains the batter. it’s like people who don’t turn on their cell phone because it drains the battery.

    Most apps that you want to multitask, such as Skype, IM, just sit in the background waiting for something to happen. But yeah, that would “drain the battery” and since you can’t put a spare in, Apple sits upon high and says no way because we can’t have our device running out of juice too often because then you would have to re-charge it too often and that will wear the batter down too quickly and ……… you know the rest!

  37. Emma

    Not implementing a very important feature just because it “drains the battery” is a 12 year olds answer to a question. Of course it drains the battery, everything you do on it drains the battery. it’s like people who don’t turn on their cell phone because it drains the battery.

    Most apps that you want to multitask, such as Skype, IM, just sit in the background waiting for something to happen. But yeah, that would “drain the battery” and since you can’t put a spare in, Apple sits upon high and says no way because we can’t have our device running out of juice too often because then you would have to re-charge it too often and that will wear the batter down too quickly and ……… you know the rest!

  38. eckenheimer

    @Emma,
    Of course everything uses the battery’s juice and runs it down. But, since Apple provides methods to use a lot less and still do what you want to do, why should they cater to lazy or ignorant developers who can’t be bothered to learn how to do it right? As Sam said in an earlier comment: “This is a sizable chunk of what annoy people about Windows — there are lots of early bad design decisions that they can’t fix because it would break software that presumes on those designs.” Seems like Apple has learned some valuable lessons, and we all benefit from that.

    Apple cares about the user experience. I’m not sure what it is that Micro$oft cares about. If you don’t like Apple’s approach, go with the majority and use Windows. After all, based solely on popularity, McDonalds is the world’s best restaurant. ; )>

  39. johnnyG

    Personally what I would like to see Apple to is kind of a hybrid multitasking support. Most people complain no multitasking since I can’t listen to pandora. I think that Apple should allow 3 third party apps to be selected as multitasking apps. The user gets to choose which app they want to allow background processing. So like me, I could have pandora and Navigon. So I can keep them running all the time. I wouldn’t keep Navigon running all the time, but when I’m using it, I would love to switch between it and the ipod app.

    Just my 2cents.

  40. Akshay

    Most audience who buy this device know about apple apps multi-tasking. Maybe a small % that might not know who haven’t seen ipod touch/iphone. It is not misleading to say it doesn’t multi-task in the general sense. I think its important that this feature is enabled soon. The fact that it might even be released as part of a future release undermines that this device/iphone is not made for concurrent apps to run. I think apple fears that third party devs might not do a good job of enabling their app for multi-tasking draining the resources. Apple would want to come up with guidelines and hand-walk through how it should be done at some point in time.

  41. Steven

    Even though Google may have learned some things by observing Apple, it’s obvious the the handset manufacturers have not. Use of Android as a mobile OS has not cured them of their feature fetishism. This is why, although Android as an OS is gaining share, no individual phone offering has experienced much more than a lukewarm reception, including the testosterone-hyped Motorola Droid and the flagship Nexus One.

  42. Josh

    Hi Andy, someone commented on a post on my blog about the iPad and refrenced this post from your site.

    I respect what you are saying about the iPad multitasking, but I have to disagree. Yes, music will continue to play and files from the iTunes library will continue to download while you write an email or work in iWork, etc. BUT, I consider those very simple tasks that run in the background. When I refer to multitasking I am talking about being able to work between many 3rd party apps at the same time just like you can on a regular Apple or PC. I want to be able to stream Pandora, while I play a game, check my facebook, and find a new place for dinner on Yelp.

    Thanks,
    Josh

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