Multitasking & the iPad

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Here's a prediction...

Apple will some day release a portable device with a 9-inch inch screen, about the same size display as the current iPad. Unlike the iPad, it will not run iOS. Rather it will run a separate OS version. A major difference between this OS and iOS is that the portable will be able to handle multitasking — displaying and running more than one app simultaneously.

Initially, multitasking will be limited to one main app with widgets. Even with such a restriction, this will provide significantly more flexibility than what's available via Notification Center on the iPhone now. For starters, there will be calculator and note-taking widgets, and probably a simple game. You'll even be able to access the device's settings as a widget. Over time, the library of widgets will expand, as third-party developers create new ones. With the ability to copy/paste between a widget and a main app, you'll be able to move text and graphics around without having to constantly switch the display.

Within a couple of years after the introduction of this product, a software upgrade will support full multitasking. That is, you will be able to view and work with at least two main apps at the same time, side by side, with the ability to drag items from one app to another.

Sound great? Are you already gearing up to hoof it over to your local Apple Store and get in line to buy one?

Don't bother. This device will never show up in an Apple Store.

The reveal

Here's the big reveal: What I just described is not really a prediction. The device already exists. It is also long obsolete. The above description refers to the original Macintosh models, from the very first one in 1984 to the Macintosh Plus in 1986. The original Macintosh supported widgets, called "desk accessories" back then. And the Macintosh Plus was able to run System 7, an OS version that included MultiFinder, a full co-operative multitasking environment. MultiFinder had some memory management problems, but it certainly worked well enough to be practical.

You may feel I cheated in describing the original Mac as "portable." By today's standards, no one would make such a claim about a Mac weighing in at over 16 pounds, but Apple marketed the Mac as "portable" at the time. They sold a soft carrying case that held the Mac, keyboard and mouse. Apple's ads showed college students carrying their Macs around campus in these cases.

The Mac Plus managed to support true multitasking back in the 1980's — getting by with a maximum of 4 MB of RAM and a measly 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processor! So why can't today's iPad do the same thing? Why can't the iPad provide even a rough approximation to this feature? The iPad is now more than two years old and is still limited to running just one app at a time, without even a widget capability.

Mac vs. iPad

In this context, multitasking does not refer to running multiple apps invisibly in the background (something the iPad can already do in limited cases) — but to the ability to have more than one app active in the display.

We know this is not an impossible goal for a mobile device. Samsung's Galaxy Note offers split-screen multitasking. Admittedly, as described in The Verge's review, the Galaxy's implementation of this feature is not entirely ready for primetime. It only works with some apps and does so rather slowly. Still, I believe a better version of this feature is possible and that Apple is capable of providing it.

And yet…there is no sign that this feature is even on the horizon. There's not even a solid rumor to to suggest it is on the way.

Why?

Why is this? What is the reason behind Apple's inability or refusal to support multitasking in the iPad? I can think of three possible reasons.

• Hardware limitations. My comparison to the Macs of yore was designed to make it seem as if offering multi-tasking on an iPad should be "easy as pie." If you could do it on a machine from 25 years ago, why not today — on a iPad that has a much faster and more sophisticated processor with a ton load more RAM?

A potential resolution of this apparent paradox is that things aren't nearly as simple as they may seem. Yes, the iPad is a much more powerful machine than the original Mac. But it also requires much more power. It runs full-screen video, plays rapid-motion games, supports a full-color Retina display and still needs to retain enough power for its battery to last several hours. And it has to do all of this with hardware that weighs less than 2 pounds and has a depth of just 0.37 inches. This presents some serious challenges.

On the other hand, the 11-inch MacBook Air, while heavier and bulkier than the iPad, is still remarkably small, thin and light. And it is capable of doing all the things the iPad cannot. Given this, you would think Apple could at least offer some limited multitasking on the iPad.

• Software limitations. A comparison to the MacBook Air highlights a second possible limitation. The Air runs OS X. The iPad runs iOS. Although both are based on a similar UNIX core, there are significant differences in the implementation of the two.

Apple may find it difficult to offer multitasking and still stay within the constraints of the iOS's "spirit" and design. Of particular relevance are Apple's sandboxing rules. While sandboxing also exists on Macs, the restrictions are far more tight on iOS devices.

On a non-hacked iOS device you can't even install an app that doesn't come from the App Store — all of which are sandboxed. Sandboxing severely restricts how two apps can interact with each other. In contrast, multitasking encourages interactions between apps, interactions that sandboxing's limitations might otherwise prohibit.

Regardless, just as multitasking can exist among sandboxed apps on the Mac, I believe the goal could be accomplished on iOS devices as well.

• Self-imposed limitations. The final possibility is that Apple maintains iOS as a non-multitasking device simply because Apple prefers to do so. Apple may believe that a single app environment is more desirable on the iPad than a multitasking one. It may believe that multitasking is not well-suited to a mobile device.

Actually, as I have covered before in several articles on the "iOS-ification" of the Mac, Apple appears to be tilting away fom multitasking on any device. Apple's recent versions of OS X push the Mac to mimic the single-app environment of iOS devices.

Launchpad, for example, is a shift away from utilizing the "always present in the background" Finder for locating and launching apps. Instead, Launchpad presents an interface similar to the Home screen on iOS devices.

More significantly, Apple has touted full-screen mode as a major enhancement of OS X in Lion and Mountain Lion — with Apple repeatedly citing the apps that support it. Full-screen mode essentially turns your Mac into a quasi-single-task device. And its use comes with all the limitations of such a mode.

Want to copy and paste text from one app to another? To do so, you either have to exit full-screen mode or slide back and forth between app screens. Either way is more effort than in a multi-windowed multi-app environment.

The supposed upside of full-screen mode is its clean "distraction-free" design. Indeed, some users of both Macs and iOS devices go along with Apple here and extol full-screen as a virtue. They applaud a text processor that shows only a blank white screen, devoid of any buttons, menus or status bars. By eliminating distractions, they claim this allows them to better concentrate on the task at hand.

I am definitely not one of these users. I prefer to have the "distractions" of a multi-tasking environment. On my Mac, I can see my email and my Twitter stream at the same time that I have Safari open and continue to work on writing an article in TextEdit. I prefer things this way. I like that I can check on the status of several apps with just a glance. I welcome the ease with which I can drag items from one app to another.  As such, I never invoke full-screen mode.

I would like to be able to do something similar on the iPad. Yes, a 10-inch display would limit what you could display on an iPad before the screen gets too cluttered. But multitasking works well enough on a 11-inch MacBook Air. I believe it could work on an iPad as well.

The ultimate question remains: Will Apple someday surmount the obstacles, real or self-imposed, and offer a multitasking version of iOS? I believe so. But I'm far from certain. And I see no sign that it is coming any time soon.

Comments

Mike Weasner

Before we had MultiFinder on the Mac, we had Switcher from Andy Hertzfeld.  Today’s iOS “multitasking” seems to more closely mimic Switcher than MultiFinder.  I suspect that iOS could support true multitasking today (and in fact, it already does with some Apple and 3rd party apps: Mail, Calendar, music); you just can’t see a window in the background apps.  Overlapping windows on the iPhone wouldn’t be ideal because of the small screen.  But I could effectively use overlapping windows on the large iPad screen as long as I could move and resize each of the running app windows.  It would be nice to have the iPad showing the Twitter timeline, Mail Inbox, and Safari at the same time, just like I (and others) do on the Mac.  Yes, this would likely take more battery power, so it might have to wait for a future iPad.  (With a mini fusion reactor for the power source?)

BurmaYank

Calling Andy Herzfeld, calling Andy Herzfeld:

Your coding wizardry is urgently needed, once again, by dear old Apple, for its current MultiFinder-less miracle-toy.

Please hurry on over to Cydia and find out what’s happening there on Absinthe, from the iPhone Dev Team, pod2g, Chronic Dev Team gangs working on it, and make yourself at home.  ASAP.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Ted, this article is the best case yet of why you frustrate me. As a tech writer, you are hell with a pen (search for that phrase on that page, it’s a high complement). But you sit inside the fence of Apple’s plantation with your back against it. You could climb over the fence and toss bombs, and carve a huge niche for yourself because nobody is doing that.

i bet if you asked for a review unit of the Galaxy Tab 10.1, you’d get one in a heartbeat and could test all your theories about usability and performance and widgets and multi-tasking out. It wouldn’t be betrayal in any sense.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Grrr, want edit. COMPLIMENT, with an “i”. Grrrrrrr.

Ted Landau

Bosco:

Thanks for the compliment. And your suggestion to ask for a review unit of Galaxy products certainly has merit. I’m going to investigate.

Regardless, I will still likely stay within the fence. This is the MAC Observer after all. And my interests follow suit.

John Martellaro

My thinking is that Apple feels that visible, routine multitasking on a 9.7-inch display is overly confusing for newbies and unwarranted.  But as iOS matures and we have   grin  15-inch iPads in 2014 then Apple will introduce it.

vpndev

Portable, indeed. I remember carrying my original Mac 128K back and forth to the office in the bag. I still have it, and the bag, in the basement. Maybe I should fire it up again - it has certainly been a while.

vpndev

Apple has started to provide a little more support by relaxing restrictions on what can be done in background. Not relaxed by much, but a little.

This has been an Apple characteristic for many years - start new things with restrictions and relax as and when experience supports it.

John Martellaro

Brad: I asked Samsung if I could review a Galaxy Note, and they ignored me.

WG

I assume that you’re speaking strictly from a non-jailbreak point of view.  Quasar, from Pedro Franceschi, enables a windowed mode on the iPad.  I usually don’t use it because it isn’t as polished as we have all come to find most Apple software, and I don’t find a need for it very often, but I do find it useful in some situations.  For example, when I’m taking notes on something I’m reading or watching. Instead of having to switch apps too write something down, hopefully remembering what it was without needing to switch back to the book, I can instead open one on the top and place the notes down below.  I really don’t seem to have a use for it very often, but that’s probably and experience thing.  I’m sure others could find more reasons. Didn’t seem to hit the battery too hard either, but I didn’t do any scientific testing or anything.

In the end though, the iPad 2 is capable of handling windows, and I think Apple could definitely make it work much much better. The limitation, i think, is solely with Apple, but I see it coming eventually perhaps.

graxspoo

My guess is that the ‘full screen’ design of iPad apps was a design decision on Apple’s part that has become too entrenched to change easily. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the hardware or the OS. Both of these allow for multitasking.
Apple decided not to burden users with overlapping windows in iOS. This makes a huge amount of sense on the iPhone since the screen is so small. They didn’t carefully revisit this when the iPad was released (or if they did, they decided it wasn’t worth going back on). So, all those iPad apps that have been written now assume they get the entire screen, and that screen size won’t change. This means they have custom graphics tweaked to fit that exact size, with variants for the different (soon to be one more) devices. And, for the most part this is what you want for attractive, high quality apps. Apps that attempt to re-lay-out their UIs or scale them often do not seem as polished.  Think of the difference between a web page and your favorite desktop application.
So, this is definitely something that Apple could do, but they probably think it would lead to lower quality apps, and would be a feature that few would take advantage of.

Tom

What I’d like to see even more than true multitasking is a multi-user environment for the iPad.  We have two iPads in a family of five, and my kids don’t need acces to my email when using the iPad.  I’d also like them to have their own music, apps, app/screen layout, etc.

graxspoo

I agree Tom. That would be more useful to me as well. My wife and I share an iPad and sometimes it’s a little annoying. We wind up not being able to use it for email because of that, or for music, etc. Since I like to keep my own web tabs open I’ve taken to using a different web browser than the built in one, but that’s a poor substitute.
However, I think this would be a difficult change for iOS. As I understand it, each app stores its data inside the app bundle. Therefor there’s no way at this time to have more than one user’s worth of data in a given app installation.

Rob

Technical issues aside
-MS Surface offers - multi-user logins using cloud based profiles, Multi-tasking in the ways you have described, and a file explorer

I own and enjoy Apple products but there is a tipping point at which all the negatives will cause me too seriously consider elsewhere. Case in point - I have not and do not currently plan to buy an ipad…and the alternatives only look more compelling as each day passes…

dmuzzy

“What I’d like to see even more than true multitasking is a multi-user environment for the iPad.  We have two iPads in a family of five, and my kids don’t need acces to my email when using the iPad.  I’d also like them to have their own music, apps, app/screen layout, etc.”. -  Tom

Couldn’t agree more.

wab95

Ted:

Just making my rounds of TMO reading during my short break out in the weeds, so apologies for the late comment.

I, too, like your reasoning here. I would, however, combine your reasons 1 and 2 (possibly all three) for the lack of true multi-tasking on the iPad into one rationale, namely, ‘Inability to provide a consistent and high quality end user experience’.

Your analysis provides the technical explanation as to why that might be; my point, rather, is about the ‘Why’. I suspect, though I have no proof, that Apple are not simply aware of this deficit (and it is a deficit from a busy professional point of view), but are working towards a fix that, if Apple is true to its past behaviour, will only be unleashed if they can address three critical systems:

1) Sandboxing, and how to provide multi-tasking without compromising Apple’s focus on security;
2) Battery-life: multi-tasking is likely to be a battery-drain that will send some users screaming their indignation into the social media bullhorn;
3) Performance consistency across apps: I’m no developer, but I can imagine that there will not be a one-size fits all approach to enabling a true, seamless user experience across different apps or types of apps. This will likely require substantial ‘beneath the bonnet’ tweaks and mods to iOS that could prove a nightmarish undertaking.

In truth, my personal experience with the iPad - and I push mine to the limits when on the road across a variety of uses that I have previously described- has been satisfactory. Could functionality be improved? Certainly. Have I tested anything that beats it for my professional field use? No, certainly not. We are kitting out our field team with a bevy of Android tablets, and truthfully, they are no substitute for the iPad. Responsiveness, build, screen display, speed - on no front do they match, let alone exceed, the iPad - at least not out here in SE Asia.

I think we may have to wait a bit for true, OSX - level multi-tasking. In the meantime, my iPad is ‘giving it all she’s got’, and that’s good enough for now.

Ted Landau

As a result of reading the comments here, I realize there is another significant constraint on Apple’ decision to move to a multitasking iPad:

Apple expects to developers to design an app to perfectly fit the dimensions of the display. In a true multitasking environment, users should be able to resize an app’s “window” to take up a selected fraction of the screen. This will almost certainly present difficulties for app designs.

It’s not an insurmountable obstacle. But it is worth noting.

Sam

There is a multi window/app application on Cydia for iPad. But the keyboard is constrained to the window dimensions.

Log-in to comment