The iPad's missing feature: multitasking

The iPad's missing feature: multitasking

Summary: The new iPad changes everything, thanks to a number of much-needed hardware improvements.

TOPICS: Apple, Apps, iPad, Mobility

There's a killer feature that's absent from the iPad. But now that we have the new iPad sporting a high pixel density Retina display and quad-core graphics, I believe that it's only a matter of time before this feature is added - and it will stomp the competition.

The feature I'm talking about is multitasking.

There was no way that the first-generation iPad was up to the demands of true multitasking. I still use a first-generation iPad and to be honest the pseudo-multitasking that Apple have built into iOS is even a bit clumsy on this device. The iPad 2, while a little better than the first-generation device, suffered most of the shortcomings of the original device.

But the iPad 3 changes everything, thanks to a number of much-needed hardware improvements.

First, there's the beefed-up GPU that's capable of shuffling around a lot more pixels than the previous generation iPad could manage. More power is a good thing, especially if you want to run multiple applications. However the real strong point of the new iPad is the screen.

You might be wondering how a screen, even if it is a high pixel density panel, helps you run more applications. It helps because it gives you more pixel real estate to run those apps on. You could have two apps side-by-side when in landscape orientation, or one above the other in portrait orientation. In fact, it could be possible to squeeze four apps onto the screen at once, each app running at the same resolution as apps on the first or second-generation iPads.

I know what you're saying already. "But the scaling is all wrong!" True, but I'm not talking about scaling existing apps to shoehorn them into a multitasking environment. I'm talking here about Apple putting in the framework for developers to build apps that would support multitasking.

I'm not for one moment suggesting that every app is suited to multitasking. You couldn't multitask games or other apps that put heavy demands on the hardware. I'm thinking more of apps that display data or are used to create content, such as word processing, spreadsheets -- that sort of thing would also be nice to be able to have email and calendar apps up simultaneously, or have a calculator or Twitter client up on the screen while I'm doing something else.

There are times when having multiple apps on the screen at one time would be infinitely more useful and efficient than having to switch between separate, standalone apps.

Adding multitasking to the next release of iOS would give Apple a clear advantage over both Android tablets and Microsoft's Windows 8 tablets with their Metro UI apps, and help keep the iPad ahead of the competition.

Image credit: Apple.


Topics: Apple, Apps, iPad, Mobility

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  • You mean something like metros snap

    Which allows you to have two apps side by side.
  • Erm...

    So why is the iPad "better" than traditional multitasking devices? Well, I'm going to argue that it isn't "better" per se, rather it is more unlike the traditional PC. Traditional multitasking systems need the user to manage resources, both processor availability (quitting applications) and resource (managing memory - quitting applications and/or not running very resource hungry applications together).

    The iPad has none of this. But in the case of the iPad are choices, iOS started life as Mac OS X, a Multitasking Unix. In fact iOS DOES multitask. But Apple have layered a different system on top that means that "apps" generally DON'T multitask in the traditional way - they context switch. So you leave an app, it stops (actually not immediately, but very soon after) when you go back it picks up again (generally). Why would they do this? Well if you're not able to interact with a program, why does it need to progress? What could it do? Most applications that you'd run on a resource like tablet will generally be waiting on user interaction anyway. Seems pointless to "actively wait" and wasteful on the battery. So under iOS, the thing doesn't.

    There is a little "smoke and mirrors" at work here, if you're running several classes of application there are things that you might want to keep running. You might want music to keep playing and a network connection to keep running - for a streaming music app. Well the app can off load these activities to the OS, the OS keeps the music playing and the app stops. You hear music, does it matter HOW this happens? Do you honestly care who's code is doing that? Or you might want something like Skype to "ring" even if you're not looking at Skype - there are similar "smoke and mirrors" for that too. I've yet to see a practical application that his it's "wings clipped" by Apple's approach to multitasking. I'm sure if such an app comes along Apple will consider extending the system to accommodate it (after all, this is how we arrived at the current system).

    The benefits are better responsiveness, better battery life.

    On iOS applications have to be ready to quit at short notice, they should pick up where they left off (save state). When iOS starts to become memory constrained it will quit applications - the user doesn't need to take this action. The OS continues to show the application as "running", even after it has been purged. If the user tries to switch to it then it is reloaded, it recovers its state and it restarts. Because apps are small, and solid state storage is fast the user is unaware of this - they just see the app as if nothing happened. Yes, this is slower than just switching to it, but users don't really notice this. Again "smoke and mirrors". For the user the iOS device seems to have no working storage limits, you never have to quit anything.

    These tradeoffs (and tradeoffs they are) are mostly invisible to the user, they result in a highly responsive system (there are other design decisions that Apple have taken to make iOS responsive that Google haven't taken) with good battery life, and no user involvement in "system management".

    Would it be better is ALL computers were like this? No. I don't want that. However, for a compute device (I'd argue the iPad isn't really a computer in the conventional sense - it cannot be programmed without using a different device) that is mobile, I personally like these aspects. Needing to run AntiVirus, or manage system resources doesn't feel better to me.

    You really want to undo all this?
    • correct

      thanks for saving me the work of writing exactly what I would have (although I'm an android fanboi). What you are saying is simply fact. For this type of device, the simpler and smoother the better- for the average person anyway. If you want more than that, have a separate computer or android.
    • I don't manage resources on Windows

      I suppose I theoretically do, closing down applications, etc. But I only do that when I'm done with them. Not because I'm worried about performance or anything.

      I haven't seen a "resources low" message in Windows in close to a decade.
      x I'm tc
      • Ahh...

        But Windows has virtual memory, a honking' big hard drive - the iPad doesn't. Plus all the apps are "on screen" on a phone they aren't visible (normally).
    • Multitasking

      Couldn't have said it better myself.

      With my "new iPad" (or iPad3 - whatever we call it) I sit in my chair at the house reading "Mutiny on the Bounty". In the background I've got Google Earth all spun up so I can jump back and forth from the book (looking up locations & stuff). At the same time I have a word-processor open into which I'm making notes, an album is playing in the background. 2 Chess Games and 4 Words-With-Friends games in progress (all notifying me when it's my move) and all this is in my hand there in my chair. At the same time I'm munching on some nuts and petting the dog. (Yes, it's the dog in my avatar!) Oh yeah, and FB is sitting out there somewhere and notifies me when a message comes in and I've got Safari open to a page where I'm researching William Bligh.

      This sounds to me like multitasking in a very natural way and my iPad is already doing this. Better still, I go at this for 3 hours straight and still have 3/4 of my battery power when I finally call it a night and put the iPad away.

      Will someone tell me what needs improvement here?

      Max Peck
      • Multitasking

        Get your head out of the sand.

        I use my iPad all day every day. I have a love/hate relationship with it because of shortcomings like this.

        I use my iPad for AirPlay a lot. The fact is that I just can't flip to another app, for example Safari to Google something relvant to what I'm watching. God forbid if my kids want to watch something on the Aplle TV that I'm airlaying, because I can't use my iPad at all then. Then there's the downloading of programs in the BBC app prior to watching them (yes I know they can be watched on the fly, but I want to download them first) and nothing else can be done while the programs are being downloaded and that's for a paid content service from the British Broadcasting Service and they claim that this is due to limitations with IOS when I've asked them about it... I'm not 100% certain that they're not just trying to cop out of fixing their buggy app, but the AirPlay issue is unquestionable.

        It seems to me that Apple products have great potential but in the end they're all style and no substance.
    • Playbook has true multitasking....

      and no, you don't have to manage it.

      Adrian also says: "You couldn???t multitask games or other apps that put heavy demands on the hardware". My Playbook can keep the game running in the background (and you can still see it) while other apps are running.

      So, based on Adrian's logic, if Apple doesn't do it, it's either not worth doing or simply can't be done.
      • Funny....

        You didn't mention the battery life when you are doing all of this "true" multitasking.
    • Problems with fake multi-tasking....

      I'll give you a real life situation where this app 'cut-off' is an issue. We use GOod for Enterprise as a mail/calendar/productivity tool because it implements security we have to have in a government environment that the vanilla idevice doesn't. One of the frustrations is that the application can only pick up new mail for a while(10 mins I think)
      After that the IOS cuts it off....even if you have the app running. You have to go back in an wait for it to sync to get those new mails......we followed this up with GFE and they explained that it was built into the IOSand nothing they could d about it. Over slow satellite links this can be an pain.
      So there definitely are tangible business impacts from the fake multi-tasking approach. It kills anything that requires background downloads (I am currently in Antarctica typing this on my ipad.....believe me downloads take a long time here!)
  • How is adding mutitasking to the iPad ...

    [i]Adding multitasking to the next release of iOS would give Apple a clear advantage over both Android tablets and Microsoft???s Windows 8 tablets with their Metro UI apps, and help keep the iPad ahead of the competition.[/i]

    ... going to give it an advantage over Windows 8, when Windows 8 can already do this? At most, it will put the iPad on parity with Windows 8 machines. When Windows 8 PCs are released, the only real advantage the iPad will have over these machines, is number of native apps. In most every other respect, Windows 8 PCs will beat the iPad hands down.

    Windows 8 PCs advantages: much more extensive enterprise support; a ton of legacy apps; support for varying sized tablets and hybrid devices; support for touch based all-in-ones; support for large touch based monitors for desktops; support for traditional PCs; and the list goes on and on.
    P. Douglas
    • Not the same

      Your comparing a tablet to a desktop.. Must compare tablet to a tablet.
      Anthony E
      • I don't think you do

        That's the great thing about Windows. It is a PC operating system. The iPad is a game console that also does work. That is, there is no "P".

        Windows "tablets" will have keyboards or not, be 32" and sitting on my desktop or 6" and sitting in my pocket, will have little expansion or ports out the wazoo, etc. They will even come in ARM and x86-64 versions. You can even get it [i]not[/i] as a tablet, if you so desire, and run it using a keyboard and a mouse. In short, you can have the Windows 8 version that you want.

        To say that "multitasking" will give iPads an advantage over Windows 8 machines is crazy talk.
        x I'm tc
    • Metro apps to follow Apple's convention...

      @P. Douglas: In case you haven't been following along, Windows 8 Metro apps will follow Apple's convention of saving states and quitting, etc. just as their mobile apps do today. Working outside of Metro on a tablet will be a kludge and will not be better than what's shipping today.
      • There is more than one way to metro

        There are multiple kinds of Metro apps. Some will, as you say, run like iPad apps and "dehydrate" when not in the foreground. Others, however, will be full-on desktop-style applications that are optimized for touch.

        It is not clear that all these kinds of apps will be available for WOA, but on x86 they will run the gamut.
        x I'm tc
      • Win 8 metro - multiple apps on screen

        Except that win 8 can already snap more than one metro app onto the screen at once

        Also .net based apps will run on WOA as long as they don't try to cheat and call any native x32 or x64 libs
      • @jdakula

        No, all metro apps will be like iPad apps.

        Not all Windows 8 programs will have metro equivalents.
        Michael Alan Goff
    • WOA does not support legacy apps

      Win 8 tablets (which are the devices you should compare to iPad) will run Windows on ARM (WOA), a completely different OS from intel Windows 8 that happens to share the same name. WOA will not run any of the 100,000s legacy Windows apps, only Metro apps. Existing code will have to be completely rewritten and when WOA tablets are released they will have virtually zero apps available. In my opinion, this is a huge error from MS. Think about Drs wandering around with Windows tablets hacking in to bespoke hospital software written in Win32. That's a great USP compared to iPad that was used in marketing the HP Slate 500 (Win 7). MS has ditched this completely.
      The Star King
  • You are wrong on so many counts

    "there???s the beefed-up GPU that???s capable of shuffling around a lot more pixels than the previous generation iPad could manage"

    You are still shuffling the same number of pixels no matter how many apps are running. The GPU won't help with multi-tasking.

    "it gives you more pixel real estate to run those apps on
    You could have two apps side-by-side"

    The original Macintosh had a screen resolution of 512x342 (according to wiki). It managed to host a full windowing OS. Doubling pixels will not let you "double" the number of apps you can display on screen at once.

    "but I???m not talking about scaling existing apps to shoehorn them into a multitasking environment
    framework for developers to build apps that would support multitasking"

    Well then your fascination with pixels is even more misguided. If you were at least to claim that Apple should shoehorn existing apps into quadrants, ignoring the fact that now Apple would need to ship the iPad with a stylus to hit the now tiny UI elements, at least your pixel talk would make more sense. But if you are talking about a new framework, meaning a new UI for apps that are being multi tasked, then pixels again don't matter. Sure, more pixels will make things look nicer but the iPad 1 and 2 both have plenty of pixels to show 2 custom built apps side by side. In fact, many apps already look like this. The mail app shows your mail list on the left side and the message on the right. That looks remarkably like how a multi tasked UI could look like.

    "You couldn???t multitask games or other apps that put heavy demands on the hardware"

    And now you've destroyed your "OMG new iPad GPU is teh bomb!!" argument. The truth is that most apps don't use a fraction of even the iPad 1's hardware capabilities, certainly not the iPad 2's. Chances are as well is that one of the multi-tasked apps would be pretty much display only since it is unlikely you will be rendering 3D images in 1 app and transcoding video in another.

    "email and calendar apps up simultaneously"

    Like I said, these apps take nearly no CPU and could easily both be running on the iPad 1.

    "Microsoft???s Windows 8 tablets with their Metro UI apps, and help keep the iPad ahead of the competition"

    Oops, as mog0 mentioned above, MS already showed this in their Windows 8 preview. Apple would be catching up with Microsoft if they did this.
    • They don't really have it

      [ul][i]Apple would be catching up with Microsoft if they did this.[/i][/ul]That kinda depends on when Apple ships such a thing (if ever). The decision to "preview" things that are being worked on -- but are not shipping -- is a common stratagem among companies that are arriving late. Go to a trade show, show a mock-up of the nuclear-powered weezlebuster, and hopefully stall some sales of the Other Guy's weezlebuster. Just because you showed it off, that doesn't make you first to market. That just makes you the guy who sells unannounced products when he hasn't got anything else to sell.
      Robert Hahn