iOS 4: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

I can’t seem to help myself. Whenever Apple comes out with a new product, I often wind up focusing more on what is missing or needs fixing than on what is exciting and wonderful. Case in point: Multitasking in iOS 4.

Multitasking has been bubbling near the top of my iPhone wish list for a long time (see my March 2009 column for one example). With iOS 4, the feature has arrived at last. I should be thrilled. Am I? Well, mostly yes…but not entirely.

So far, iOS 4’s multitasking has worked for me exactly as Apple promised. The multitasking bar pops up when you double-press the Home button. It lists all the apps that you have recently opened. To switch to any listed app, tap its icon. I especially like that you can switch to a different app from this bar without having to first return to the Home screen. This is just the sort of functional and attractive design that I have come to expect from Apple.

The absolute best part of iOS 4’s multitasking is its “saved state” feature. This preserves where you are in a given app so that, when you return to the app later, you immediately find yourself at the exact same spot. This means, for example, you can leave a game to check your email and, when you return to the game, you won’t have to relaunch it and start from scratch! Because this feature takes up very little memory, it is available to almost every iPhone app. This is what the majority of users will likely most welcome about multitasking. 

Multitasking does have some acknowledged limits. Apple was very clear about this even before the OS was released. iOS 4 does not actually allow every app to process in the background (which is separate from merely saving the app’s state). As explained more in this TUAW article, iOS 4 instead offers only certain multitasking options — such as the ability of a GPS navigation app to track your route in the background while you are in another app. Apple claims these restrictions were put in place to prevent excessive battery drain and a slowing down of the iPhone’s processing speed. I understand and I am fine with this.

I am also aware that most apps need to be updated before they support multitasking. That’s fine as well. No complaints.

So yes…overall I am thrilled with iOS 4’s multitasking. Still…after playing with the multitasking bar for awhile, a few downsides have become evident:

• Every app you launch is added to the multitasking bar — even apps that have not yet been updated to support any form of multitasking. This means you can tap on an app in the bar and find that the app relaunches exactly as it did in iOS 3. Not a deal-breaker by any means — but a bit confusing.

It would be nice if each app could somehow indicate the extent of its multitasking support — so you know what to expect.

• Every app you launch is added to the multitasking bar — even if you don’t care to have it there because you have no expectation of using multitasking with this app. There is no user control over this. This might not seem like much of a problem at first. But after you have more than twenty apps in the bar and you have to swipe through numerous screens just to locate the app that you want, it can start to get tiresome.

Further, whenever you access an app, its icon is moved to the front of the list in the bar’s display. Again, you have no control over this. There is no way to reorder the apps in the bar. Do you have three or four apps that you intend to primarily switch among? Would you like these to remain permanently at the front? Too bad. You can’t do it. 

• Quitting apps is not especially convenient. Suppose, to simplify and reduce the apps listed in the multitasking bar, you want to quit numerous apps so that they are no longer in the display. You can do this by tapping-and-holding an app icon in the bar until all the apps start to jiggle and have a minus badge in their icon. Tap any icon and the app is removed from the bar (although it remains installed on your Home screen). This is the same basic interface as used to delete an app from the Home screen.

But what if you have a dozen or more apps you’d like to remove? This can quickly become tiresome. And what’s the point of doing it anyway? The list will start to grow again almost immediately, as you continue to open apps.

Further, if iOS 4 senses that memory is running low, it will automatically start to remove apps from the bar. Again, you have no direct control over what apps iOS 4 chooses to terminate here.

What would improve things would be to have an exclude list — a Settings option where you can select those apps for which you never want multitasking enabled. Or conversely, an include list where only the listed apps work with multitasking. Or, at a minimum, any sort of prioritizing option for indicating which apps should be favored if there is insufficient memory.

Another approach

I have experimented with an alternative method of multitasking — available only if you jailbreak your iOS device. It’s called Backgrounder and I currently have it running on my iPad. As far as I can tell, it only provides the equivalent of  “saved state” multitasking. But, as I already indicated, that’s the option I most expect to use. In a few ways, I find Backgrounder more convenient than Apple’s approach. To enable an app for multitasking, you hold down the Home button when you want to leave an app. After a brief pause, a message appears saying “Backgrounding Enabled.” At this point, you let go of the button and the app quits to the Home screen. When you later return to the app, it picks up where you left off. To turn the saved state off, repeat the procedure until the “Backgrounding Disabled” message appears. This gives you direct and convenient control over when an app does or does not engage multitasking. Backgrounder also appears to work with almost all existing apps; there is no need for them to be updated.

On the other hand, there are several downsides to Backgrounder. First, there is no way to bring up a list of — or otherwise indicate — which apps have backgrounding enabled and which do not. [Correction: As noted in the comments below, there is a way to do this.] Second, there is no way to switch from one app to another without going through the Home screen. Plus, as you might expect with this sort of hacked solution, there are some bugs and the app does not always work as intended.

I’m not suggesting that Backgrounder is overall superior to Apple’s solution. It isn’t. But it has some good ideas that Apple might want to consider for the future. 

Bottom line

It’s not just multitasking. I could start building a wish list for almost every new feature in iOS 4.

Mail’s unified Inbox? I love it…except I’d like to be able to select a given account not be included in All Inboxes.

Folders? A great addition. I already have a dozen folders on my iPhone, significantly reducing Home screen clutter. But this only makes it harder for me to locate a given app when I’ve forgotten where I placed it. How about a Spotlight feature to “Show App in Home Screen”? 

FaceTime? Sounds intriguing. But I haven’t tried it yet…largely because I’m so limited as to who I can call. You can only call someone with an iPhone 4 who is currently on a Wi-Fi network. Before FaceTime really becomes useful, it needs to at least interface with iChat on a Mac.

This brings me back to my statement at the top of this article. When does noting omissions and inconveniences drift into carping? At what point does constructive criticism start to seem more like looking a proverbial gift horse in the mouth?

The new features in iOS 4 are all really at version 1.0. They’ll surely be improved over time. I know this. Why not show a little more patience? Part of the answer is that, given my history as a troubleshooter, it’s not in my nature to do so. For that matter, if I (and others) don’t raise these issues, how is Apple to know what its customers want going forward? Similarly, readers want to know both the pros and cons of any new technology. At least I hope so.

At times, this can be a tricky balancing act. But not this time. Despite a few mostly minor reservations, I’ve found iOS 4 to be an impressive upgrade. Strongly recommending it is an easy call. It’s not perfect. But then no OS ever is. 

 

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Comments

Lancashire-Witch

How is it that the features and functions you really want are always in the next version? grin

Isaac

If your interested in switching between apps that are running while using Backgrounder, there is another app on Cydia that is meant to be coupled with it called ProSwitcher. It offers a “Palm Pre style” interface which allows you to see all the apps that are running at the time.

do your research

I agree with you about iOS 4 “multitasking”. After using jailbroken iPhone with multitasking, my new iPhone 4 with iOS 4, seems antiquated at best.

However, YOU need to do your research before you start talking about what programs can’t do. Backgrounder does have options to show what is running in the background: a little badge shows up on any app icon that is running in the background. And if you use it with Circutious, or ProSwitcher, you can have a nice little list pop up that shows you and allows you to switch between running apps. Circutious and Backgrounder combined are the best multitasking experience you can have on a mobile device. Simplay amazing, and I can’t wait till they release a iPhone 4 jailbreak so I can stop using Apple’s shitty implementation of “multitasking”.

The only thing missing from my iPhone 4.0 is a jailbroken iOS 4.0. Apple needs to get their shit together and stop self limiting their products. I’m sure they will copy more jailbroken app ideas in the future. I also miss Lockinfo..what a waste of a whole screen in the locked state! I have to do a swipe, a push button, and a tap to check email, instead of it just showing me my new email preview on the locked screen!

Isaac

To do your research, there is a jailbreak available for iOS 4, it can also enable wallpapers and multitasking for iPhone 3G and 2G. It’s provided by redsnow.

Ted Landau

Backgrounder does have options to show what is running in the background: a little badge shows up on any app icon that is running in the background.

Ack..you are correct of course. I had this option on at one point, but turned it off later (I am not sure why anymore; I believe I had some problem with it). When it came time to write this article, I had forgotten about it. I should have checked again. My bad.

As to Circuitous and/or ProSwitcher, I will give them a spin. Thanks (to both commenters) for the recommendations.

Ted Landau

FYI: ProSwitcher did not work on my iPad. But Circuitous performed great. Allows for a popup dock displaying multitasked apps. Very nice!

graxspoo

I agree with your comments about multitasking. I dislike any design that encourages me to make a mess as I go. I really do not want to have every app I’ve ever run hanging out in that task bar, nor do I want to have the periodic chore of weeding the bar.

What we need are two separate gestures: quit and ‘suspend and launch.’ Only the suspended apps would show up in the task bar.

iVoid

I guess apps need to have a ‘quit’ option now to completely shutdown from within the app.

Although I wonder if Apple will allow that, since they want to hide as much of the power of iOS from the users as possible.

JonGl

Hm. The more I read and hear about oPS 4, the more I want to stick with my jailbroken 3. I’ll take Backgrounder and Proswitcher over Apple’s own. It is much more sensible and controllable than Apple. I wonder how well the two will get along together…

Substance

I’m pretty impressed Apple’s multitasking implementation, it’s better than I expected for v1.0 of that feature.  I personally don’t see Backgrounder as something I would want to do.  For the weeks leading up to the iOS4 release I read several great articles, including some here, about how Apple’s implementation of multitasking had to be in the background and stay out of the user’s way.  Backgrounder appears to take the opposite approach, forcing the user to explicitly enable multitasking.  That sounds backwards to me.

I like the fact that iOS4’s multitasking works the same whether you choose an app from the multitasking bar or from a home screen.  And I hope that all apps at least implement the saved state feature. 

But the iOS4 multitasking bar has one flaw in my book.  And it’s the same flaw that folders addresses.  Anything past the 2nd screen of apps is more than I want to scroll through.  I would prefer that Apple limits the number of apps on the screen at 3 screens (for 12 apps).  Leave all apps in the background that are doing something running (ex. radio apps, Skype, navigation apps) and the remaining spots are for the most recently used apps.  Any extra apps that don’t appear on the bar can still save state if there is enough free memory, but the OS is free to reclaim that memory at any time should it be needed.

When does noting omissions and inconveniences drift into carping? At what point does constructive criticism start to seem more like looking a proverbial gift horse in the mouth?

I believe it only drifts when you give up trying to understand the other side and start believing your observations are absolute and there are no other perspectives. smile  Thankfully, you’re too good to descend to that level.  That’s why I and so many others like it around here.  It beats the typical ‘my way or the highway’ mentality of so many other tech “writers”.

Deen777

I have been using the iOS 4 for about a week and the only feature I’m annoyed with is the multitasking.  Every freaking app you open gets put into the multitask bar, even if it has no multitasking ability at all.  Before you know it you have a sh*t load of app icons in the multitask bar, making difficult to find the one you want and even more annoying is having to delete each one off the multitask bar (you have to press it so it wiggles, then press the little red circle on each one,etc.).  It is the most ridiculous thing to use, it takes more time and work than it saves.  I hate it, I want to turn it off or at the very least give us an option so the the user specifies what apps you allow to use multitask, like we do for notifications, we can turn it off or on for each app in Settings.

webjprgm

They order the list by most recently used app.  I never do multitasking with more than about 3 apps, so the ones I want to switch around to are almost always on the first screen.  I just pretend the others don’t exist and launch them from the home screen like normal. 

Apple’s implementation is that they keep stored state for as many apps as they can.  There is no reason for the user to cull the list, since it gets cleared as needed and the most recently used apps are prioritized to stay open.

I suppose one scenario is if you like to keep a particular app open in the background to instantly return to it, like keeping Twitter or Safari always around.  The nice thing, though, is that all apps are already written to return to your spot, so even if iOS 4 clears the app out of memory you only have a bit longer delay to get back there rather than needing to manually navigate to the spot.  So I don’t think it’s too much of a bother.  Though perhaps the priority should be most frequently used in addition to most recently used.  I still, however, am just fine with most recently used because that’s how I naturally use multitasking on this device.

(Note: I haven’t verified that they DON’T do some kind of most frequently used.  I just notice that the most recent app is at the front of the list, so I assume that’s how it works.  If anyone has different information feel free to correct me.)

I did notice once that I left a game I was playing to do some other quick tasks and the game reset when I tried to return to it.  This is one symptom of having no way to indicate what apps I WANT left suspended.  If I only open one other app then it seems to work fine, but beyond that there’s a risk of losing the game in the background.

Kendall

If you want to switch between four apps frequently, just put them in a folder.  The bottom bar SHOULD be only for most recently used apps. 

I don’t see why anyone would scroll through a huge list when they can just return to the application using the normal launch icon on the home screen.  I just ignore the fact you can even scroll to the side..

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