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Summary:

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the iPhone has been that it doesn’t support multitasking, aside from a few of Apple’s own system level applications that are included on the device and can’t be deleted. Yet the iPhone sells like hotcakes, and Apple has a technical solution […]

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the iPhone has been that it doesn’t support multitasking, aside from a few of Apple’s own system level applications that are included on the device and can’t be deleted. Yet the iPhone sells like hotcakes, and Apple has a technical solution that essentially accomplishes the same thing, called background notifications. If multitasking is so important, as the critics, pundits and technology bloggers will tell you, why have the iPhone and its sibling the iPod touch become two of the most successful electronics devices of all time?

Because the technology press and hardcore technology users have an unprecedented platform from which to speak and be heard. Period. End of story.

Last week’s iPad announcement made this abundantly clear. The technosphere has labeled the iPad an unqualified failure, in large part due to lack of multitasking. News flash: multitasking is overrated. Its not nearly as important to average, everyday users as it is to the people who cover technology for a living. Despite the fact that Palm’s WebOS and Google’s Android both support multitasking, neither has come anywhere close to the success of the iPhone.

With the iPhone and now the iPad, Apple is clearly targeting a mass consumer audience. Many of these users aren’t comfortable with computers. They use them almost because they have, for email and a few other core tasks. Obviously this is changing, as the number of computer and Internet users continues to grow. Its not because computers and the Internet are incredibly easy to use, because they aren’t. In fact, the difficulty in using computers has probably slowed adoption of computing and Internet services into consumers’ daily lives, and part of that complexity comes from multitasking.

Here are three observations that also lead me to believe that multitasking just isn’t that important to most people.

  1. I have facilitated or observed literally thousands of web usability test sessions over the last several years. In watching people use computers and the web, I’ve noticed three very specific behaviors: 1) most people instantly maximize windows to fill their screens and minimize distractions; 2) only the most tech savvy users use alt-tab (Windows) or command-tab (Mac) to switch between apps; and 3) people are far more likely to be confused when multiple windows and apps are open.
  2. There has been a surge in interest in the last few years for desktop applications that take over the screen. This is true of Firefox, for example, which has a full-screen “kiosk” mode, and several word processors designed to let users write without distraction.
  3. Despite pretty regular usage, my wife still struggles with some basic Mac operations related to multitasking, such as closing windows as an attempt to quit an app, switching between apps, not realizing which window is active, etc. While she still uses the Mac, she has moved more and more of her computing activity to her iPhone because she doesn’t have these same issues.

Sure, many of us heavy users like multitasking on our computers and might not feel nearly as productive without it (I say feel because there is evidence to suggest that we aren’t really multitasking but fast switching, and performance suffers when we do). But the majority of people in the world aren’t like us. They want something that is really easy to use and understand, and that provides some level of enjoyment or helps make their lives easier. Apple’s iP products (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) are designed for these people.

What Apple is really doing is making technology disappear, surfacing content in a very human way. Even if processing power and battery life are currently capable of delivering multitasking, I’m not sure Apple will implement it in the way we think of multitasking today. Perhaps it will allow background processing and easier switching among apps, which get at core user needs, but I expect it will maintain a solotasking approach well into the future of its product designs.

  1. Multitasking is the art of doing several things at once, all of them badly.

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    1. Multitasking is the art of being lazy.
      I don’t close anything on my Mac anymore.

      Really does nut bug me that they don’t have it on the IPod Touch.

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  2. Really? “Average” people don’t like being able to listen to pandora and send a text?

    So then Apple dumbs its products down because they “care” about you getting confused from all the scary multiple applications at once? Or is this like copy and paste where you gotta stick around for iPad 4gS.

    Or is this another fanboy trying to justify why their product is missing basic simple features?

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    1. Agree with Monster. Having to quit out of a game and restart completely just because I wanted to respond to an IM notification is archaic.

      By your logic, this iPad would be best suited for people who have struggle to perform basic operations with a computer, and then is probably not the right tool for anyone who actively seeks out information on blogs such as this.

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    2. I agree as well, it is frustrating to have to close out of a program to respond to a text or IM. Especially apps like Pocket Tunes that takes a few minutes to resume.

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    3. Do you have an iPhone? I can start compose SMS, quit, write an e-mail (for example), return to composing SMS and it’s still there like I left it. And yes, average people don’t listen to pandora…

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    4. These same “average people” who aren’t listening to Pandora also aren’t buying iPhones. The random person who is too stupid to run 2 tasks at once does NOT want something as complex as an iPhone.

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  3. I’ve been developing on Apple hardware since the late 80′s and so have experienced non-multitasking OSes right through to the current multi-tasking, multi-threaded OS. Multitasking does matter – especially on a communications device. I use a Nokia N900 and the more I use it the more jealous my iPhone toting colleagues are of my ability to have numerous apps and tasks running simultaneously. That basically leaves the challenge in the hands of the developers – can they develop apps that really don’t need multitasking on the device in order to not render them fundamentally flawed? It might prove to be a hard challenge…

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    1. @ Roland & monster

      I agree with the article up to a point. Limiting multi-tasking does make the iPhone/iPodTouch/iPad easier to use for average folks. For those who REALLY want to stream Pandora (or iHeart radio, like me) while surfing or sending email, there is always jailbreaking available. So the heavy tech users have that option. I suspect that Apple will loosen up the limitations on multitasking somewhat in future OS’s as well.

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  4. Multitasking is unnecessary when consuming. It becomes necessary when creating.

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    1. Good point.

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  5. monster, does the “average” user have Pandora?

    Believe it or not, streaming audio is not yet mainstream. It’ll probably get there, and when it does no doubt there will be a solution from Apple for their devices.

    Patrick, when you say “switching between apps, not realizing which window is active” you’re actually highlighting what I believe is a flaw in the OS X GUI. If you’re using a mouse, there is no need for ‘focus’. It’s an artificial constraint and I was using a GUI OS in the late 80s that recognised this. At least you can now scroll any window with the mouse in OS X. It’s getting there.

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    1. im a huge apple fan, and supporter, but it is super annoying closing a game just to respond to an IM, and then having to load up everything again, and by the time you do, another freaking IM.

      and I work around horribly untechsavy people, yet they all know what Pandora is. Maybe not every mother and father is using it, but a large population of the Iphone/Itouch community is, hence why it is always one of the top apps.

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  6. I can play music check e-mail and surf the web. How much more do you need?

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  7. @ monster. Obviously you don’t get it as a ‘trolling Apple basher’. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a “consumer” lifestyle product. You are just sore that Apple could possibly have another ‘monster’ hit on their hand. BTW – nice article.

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  8. great article!! As a power user, I love multitasking, but to really do it properly, even on a desktop, you need to use multiple screens. I like having what I am doing nice and big and in my face because it’s what I need to focus on. The more screens you have the more applications you can run at full screen. I love the iPhone, after switching from my Palm Pre. It’s fast and easy and just works. Once you get too many “cards” open on the Pre it lags A LOT! Multi-tasking is a nice idea; but you realy need multible screens nto urilize it correctly or else you just get clutter, and nothing is worse than a cluttered screen!

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    1. Dude,

      you did not own a Pre. Just saying….you did have multiple screens, they rotate around like much of the touchflow technology on the HTCs. There was absolutely no clutter. And quite frankly, multi tasking is nice, like say listening to any number of streaming music apps and typing away at an e-mail or a text, or surfing the web, playing a (silent) game, etc. I’ve never opened more than 3 or 4 apps at a time, and at that point only briefly, and my Pre has never given me a problem. Either way, my boyfriend has an iPhone, which is admittedly a cool piece of technology and for that matter the first one out the door with their kind of capabilities, except that I don’t like Apple’s “everyone is too stupid to be able to do (any number of things) on our computers so you just won’t be able to” attitude. SO damnit, I love my Pre, and the iPad is crap.

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  9. Really? No multi-tasking on the iPhone/iPad because not everyone will use it? You really think that’s why?

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  10. Go ahead and check out a program called ProSwitcher inspired by Webos cards multitasking for the iPhone. It makes the device that much better…..multitasking is something really simple in my opinion and Apple is dumbing down the products for their next revisionfuture update.

    We were suppose to have the iPod Touch around the time Video arrived, lol – all the pieces were there and it was always an excuse of price vs adoption. Yet Apple makes almost 40% profit every product sold (article noted even here on Om), its all about indoctrinating the buyer and you sir (editor) need to open your eyes. Multitasking will be a neccecity as we bridge the cap in between CE devices and PCs which the iPad will be perfect fit if Apple plays their cards right. For one, Apple is not finished with Iphone OS, it will be much more including Multitasking but from past experiences I can’t see them rushing in on this….but slowly letting it develop….all while gaining a nice penny for R&D.

    CyKiller

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