Multitasking & the iPad

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 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.