As we all know, yesterday Apple announced multitasking as part of the upcoming iPhone 4.0 software update. I have already read a lot of criticism that this isn’t “true” multitasking. Apple did announce several of the 3rd party multitasking features that many have been hoping for – streaming Pandora and other radio apps in the background, GPS apps operating in the background (they showed TomTom and Pandora running at the same time), letting downloads/uploads continue with apps that aren’t the foreground app, allowing Skype to function in the background, and so on.
So what’s missing? Well, another facet of multitasking in iPhone 4.0 allows “fast app switching,” which allows a background app to exist in a saved but not active state. When the user chooses to go back to that app (through an elegant new UI feature), it will start up right where it left off. According to Apple, 0% of the CPU is required in maintaining the app in its quiescent state, allowing battery life and CPU cycles to be preserved. Technically, several apps aren’t actually running at once, but can be called up quickly without having to exit back to the home screen and re-opened.
For those who feel this isn’t really multitasking, I would ask you to think about what multitasking really means to you. I’m a person who likes to have several things going on at once. On my desktop, I may have a Twitter client open, Mail, several web windows, perhaps my calendar, and more. Back when I used to play online poker, I would often have several poker games active at the same time. The truth, though, is that it’s impossible to take in and interact with all of that information at the same moment. It’s really just “fast app switching” from one task to another. There is an argument that that type of behavior actually makes us less productive – for example, the sound notifying us that a new e-mail has come in is a distraction from whatever task is at hand. Even when we decide not to look at the message immediately, some attention is taken from the active task, decreasing efficiency.
Right or wrong, however, we like to have the ability to multitask. I’m sure we all have our reasons, perhaps deluding ourselves into thinking we are more efficient that way. In my case, a lot of my desire to multitask is impatience. With online poker, for example, I quickly bored of waiting for others to take their turn. I enjoyed the challenge of having to think quickly with more than one active game. I was always a better online poker player than a live action poker player, since patient observation of your opponents is far less crucial online. Players tend to hop in and out of games more frequently, there are no facial expressions to read, and timing of play is more uniform, so devoting a large amount of attention to observation is largely wasted. (In live poker, observation is of course an essential part of the game, but the action can move mind-numblingly slowly at times).
My reasons for wanting multitasking in the iPhone, with the exception of some special cases like streaming radio and GPS apps, are similar. We do not yet live in a world where phone hardware and network speeds are instantaneous. I get bored waiting for Words with Friends to connect or waiting for a web page or Twitter stream to load. Ideally, I would like those tasks to happen instantly. Since that is not possible, what I really want is fast app switching so I can do something else and go back to the task when complete.
Will the new iPhone multitasking accomplish this? I think it remains to be seen, and may depend on the developer and the app in question. If Words with Friends pauses in its interminable uploading while I’m doing something else and then I just go back to the app to continue waiting, it will not help. If the app can complete its task while I do something else, I will be thrilled. The programming details are over my head, but my take on Apple’s presentation is that “pausing” an app is one approach, but some apps will have the ability to continue uploading/downloading in the background. It will likely be up to developers to make the right decision for their particular app.