Dear Google: Android's Multitasking Sucks

Summary:When it comes to task managment, the developers at Google think they know better than the end-users that are actually using their products.

I've been using my Verizon Galaxy Nexus since launch day -- just under two weeks.

While I happen to feel that Google's Android Ice Cream Sandwich (version 4.0) on the Galaxy Nexus is a significant improvement over previous versions of the OS that I've encountered on various Android devices that I've used in the last two years, one thing has not changed or improved whatsoever: the abyssmal way that multitasking is presented to the end-user.

Why is it awful? Well, let's start with the basics. In Android, as you start an application, its services will continue to run in the background when you start more apps.

Provided that an application is well-written, only a stub of that app continues to run, such as GMail's message poller or perhaps a Twitter client's notifier service.

But plenty of apps still commit a significant amount of resources to memory even when you stop using them or start a new process.

Which they really shouldn't.

If these are left unchecked, your Android device's performance and stability goes straight to hell.

What's the common fix to this issue? Well, an entire cottage industry of developers have written various task killer/task managment and memory optimization utilities for Android, which can be used with a single click of a button to wipe apps and services out of memory.

One such app, called "Advanced Task Killer" (by developer ReChild) is on the top of the charts for most popular applications on both the Google Android Market and Amazon's Appstore for Android.

Shouldn't this really be a function that's built into the OS? Shouldn't the end-user have quick visibility into what programs are bogging down the system and then kill them appropriately?

I'd think this should be the case, but for some reason, Google keeps ignoring this with every successive software release and in many cases task managment has to be "value added" into the handset or the tablet by the device OEM.

Samsung, for example, wrote some pretty nice task managment software for the original 7" Galaxy Tab, and has incorporated it into many of their devices they've released since.

In Android 4.0, at least as how it is presented on the Galaxy Nexus, the task killer UI is actually buried deep in the Settings under "Applications" on a separate tab for "Running" and it takes several clicks to get to.

This should actually be accessible directly from the home screen, and it isn't.

By comparison, in Apple's iOS 5, all running programs that are either cached or have active processes can be accessed by a simple double push of the main action button and can be scrolled through and stopped quickly with a simple tap of the finger on a little "x" symbol.

While not the commercial success of either Android or Apple's iOS, both HP's webOS 3 used in the dearly departed TouchPad as well as RIM's QNX-based PlayBook tablet OS have even better multitasking methods -- you just swipe up to show all the running processes and literally "flick" the program out of memory with a swipe of your finger.

There's really no such equivalent to this type of task managment in Android. Instead, the Android evangelists at Google will tell you just to trust Ice Cream Sandwich's automated memory management and everything just sorts itself out.

You know what? I think they're full of crap, because we don't live in a perfect world where all apps behave reasonably and release resources like they are supposed to.

Well, let me clarify myself here. In Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich, there is the new "Recently Accessed" soft button (the double rectangle symbol) which shows Apps you used recently and you can scroll through them to launch those apps.

But that doesn't actually reflect what is still running. And you can't kill processes with it. You can only remove stuff from the recently accessed list.

Now, maybe I'm spoiled by how it works on my iPad in iOS 5, but to me the "Recently Accessed" soft button in Honeycomb/Ice Cream Sandwich is essentially useless and wasted screen real estate.

I mean, most people who use Android devices tend to group their favorite apps on the different pages of the Launcher screen, so they have quick access to them anyway. I'm not sure what "Recently Accessed" actually gets you, to be perfectly blunt.

It would be much better if the double rectangle soft button was actually a full-blown task manager, that showed you a graphical representation of programs and processes and allowed you to kill them as necessary.

And maybe it's just me but I'm also really pissed off that you now need to chew up Launcher real estate with a dedicated widget that that's a link to the Android Settings pages, rather than having it being one of the soft buttons.

It would seem to make sense to me that the double rectangle could allow you to jump right into settings as well as present a task manager, but I guess the developers at Google think they know better than the end-users that are actually using their products.

Does Android's lack of decent built-in task management drive you up the wall? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobile OS, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobility, Security, Smartphones

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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