iOS 4: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth?

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.