The iPhone has a number of advantages over its smartphone competitors, but one thing it hasn’t had that users have been clamoring for is true multitasking. Push notifications were intended as a workaround designed to give users the ability to stay up-to-date with multiple apps without having to actually run them at the same time.
It’s still only a partial solution, though, and one many iPhone users aren’t satisfied with. True multitasking is still high on the want list of many iPhone users, and really remains the only thing not addressed by the many major feature additions iPhone 3.0 brought. Luckily, true app backgrounding capabilities are said to be on the way in iPhone 4.0.
That’s according to sources AppleInsider describes as having a “proven track record in predicting Apple’s technological advances.” According to those same sources, though, Apple still has a ways to go before it can introduce these features to iPhone users. But the problem doesn’t lie with the iPhone’s ability to run multiple applications at once.
In fact, the iPhone is quite good at multitasking in its current incarnation. Nike+ runs great while you do other things like take calls and/or check your email. But it’s the only non-Apple app that’s allowed that privilege. And Apple developed it for Nike, so it doesn’t really count. What’s new in iPhone 4.0 is that third-party developers will finally be able to run their apps in the background, too.
Apple hasn’t enabled true multitasking for all apps not because it’s been technically prevented from doing so, but because doing so represents a security risk in terms of opening the door to apps being able to run in the background without the user’s knowledge, which is how viruses and other malware works.
There’s also the issue of increased performance requirements, and increased battery usage. Apple is said to be addressing both of those with the new framework, though the source provided no specifics about how exactly that would be managed. I predict that mutitasking will only work on newer hardware, most likely the 3GS and above. A next-gen iPhone will probably be built from the ground up with multitasking in mind, and should offer battery and processor improvements scaled to compensate.
Another challenge Apple faces in bringing background multitasking to the iPhone is redesigning the user interface. As of now, users can access any currently running Apple programs that use backgrounding by tapping a thin colored bar at the top of the screen. While that works quite well for just one app, if you have a number running at once, it could quickly become way too cluttered and obscure the app you’re actually using at the moment.
According to AppleInsider’s source, the solution in the works at Apple leverages some existing tech from OS X to accomplish this. Personally, I’m betting on some kind of Exposé-type interface, possibly accessed through a special gesture or in a way similar to the one used now to bring up the iPhone’s Spotlight search screen. It might also take a page out of mobile Safari’s book, and use an interface similar to the one the browser has for displaying multiple pages.
The iPhone’s interface in general could probably use a makeover at the point. It’s been unchanged since its launch, and while many would call that a testament to its strength and intuitiveness, there’s no denying that as the iPhone gains new abilities, Apple might want to consider some more drastic changes to the ways in which users access and make use of those functions.
I’m sure Apple can handle the UI challenges, but I’m much more wary about how it addresses the potential security risks that come with opening up backgrounding. Luckily, it still has absolute control over the App Store, but it still might be possible for industrious hackers to bypass the safeguards in place and get some malicious software onto people’s devices.
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