Blog Post

Multitasking is Overrated

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.

102 Responses to “Multitasking is Overrated”

  1. Lisent to music… i have a stereo. Write some text… i have a typewriter, read an e-book… I HAVE THE BOOK… the beaty of digital devices is that you can do all of this thing at a time, if you can’t do that go back to the manual and read it go to some basic computing clases, Multitask necesary! USB necesary! i feel sad about the iPad…

  2. Adam Jackson

    I think you’re just trying to justify the iPad’s inability to multi-task with applications downloaded from the app store. If Apple had included it, there would be a post applauding it.

    I keep saying out loud, the iPad isn’t for us! It’s for the rest of us, those that don’t read the apple blog. Those that do read TAB will justify buying one but it’s for our parents and non-techie friends. So, for them, multitasking isn’t really something that should be a feature and then you risk getting that sunday morning phone call that the thing is running too slow.

    “grandma, open process viewer and close notepad, pandora, aim, tweetie and facebook.”

    “oh it’s much faster now”

    we know that. our non-techie friends don’t

  3. thecizco

    I agree with this article. I multitask all the time on my laptop and computer at home. The only time single-tasking on my iPhone has bothered me was when I wanted to listen to TWIT while doing other things on my phone. But I don’t really think that is worth crying over.

    I am quite certain Apple will add multitasking to the iPhone OS. Actually, I am willing to bet a lot of money that it is a major feature of OS 4.0. I’m also quite certain they didn’t introduce it with the iPad because they wanted to announce all the 4.0 updates together in March or April. They have to be more strategic now given the competition. It makes more sense for them to announce all major new features as late as possible to give competitors as little time as possible to react.

    Last year’s OS preview event was March 17. Is it a coincidence that the iPad is coming out late that month? Scott Forstall will take the stage, go over all the new features and say, “This update will be available in June for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.”

  4. Andrew Choi

    It’s important to point out that on a screen this size, you probably want a bit more multitasking than is available on an iphone/ipod touch, though not necessarily the full effect as on a desktop os. perhaps background email, instant messaging, web browsing. Pandora and other similar music apps have the same functionality as the ipod app, so i don’t see reason why they shouldn’t allow it on the basis of this article.

  5. So apple apple the “hardcore” users? then I will leave apple. back to PC’s!… nah just kidding, but if this continues to other apple devices meaby i will… i hope not. For now a huge “NO” to the iPad T_T

    Those who say “i don’t need multitasking” it’s because they don’t know what it’s multitasking, or they don’t see the benefits of it.

    (bad english I know)

  6. I guess the main reason that Apple can’t allow third party apps to multitask is that the stability of the OS can no longer be guaranteed. What if you open 10 apps at a time? What if 2 of those are CPU-intensive? How do you switch between active apps? I guess the OS just isn’t prepared for real multitasking.

    Some readers say that the average consumer doesn’t need multitasking, but there are exceptions: Skype or Chat apps are very unpractical when you can only have them open as a single app.

    And don’t forget it’s Apple who showed iWork on the iPad, which clearly suggests that they DO want you to be productive on your pad and not just watch movies and photos.

  7. Allister

    “Apple’s job is to make the technology available, not to tell us how to use it.”

    Actually no. Apple’s job is to make money for its shareholders and they’re doing fine job of it from what I can see. If you don’t want to line those shareholders’ pockets, no-one is forcing you to.

    • What a stupid comment. Making money for shareholders is synonymous with making products that appeal to their intended audience. The negative response to this product (which the Apple PR corps otherwise known as the Apple blogs are trying to repress) is a very clear indicator that it is considered an overhyped piece of crap. This version may not bomb (thanks to the billions in free publicity Apple has received due to press shills), but I am not so sure about future releases.

    • It’s called building a better mouse trap.

      So far Google and MS are in the process of removing their fingers from their ill built and over priced mouse traps(Zune/Nexus).


    • Allister

      Rob, do you not remember all the negative stuff about iPhone, iPod Touch, and each new version that came out? Granted it may not have been as widespread as for the (as yet unreleased) iPad, but ‘everyone’ STILL wants multitasking on the iPhone. And yet Apple are selling many millions of these devices. And making money.

      And from what I can see, most of the complaints revolve around the device not being what each individual wanted. If you put all the views together, everything and nothing is perfect about this device.

    • Jason Harris

      Again, the question I’ve asked repeatedly and nobody can seem to answer is what user this device is intended for.

      Non-savvy internet user? They have a computer, no need to replace it with some fancy touch screen device.
      Power user? The device lacks functionality, and requires yet another carrying case beyond their existing laptop/phone.

      This device will sell to hardcore Apple fans with the disposable income to have a device like this just sort of sitting around the house for couch browsing when they don’t want to cruise over to their iMac, and to a lesser extend the kind of people who carried a MacBook Air…people who value aesthetics enough that they will pay big money AND carry around yet another device just for the novelty of it.

      This device is NOT the iPod, or the iPhone. The iPod took existing technology and put it into a small, sleek, easy to use package. The iPhone really pushed the boundaries of what phones are capable of, and helped lead the market into consumer smartphone adoption.

      The iPad is a novelty gadget that isn’t sophisticated enough to replace anything you currently own, and thus will be delegated to people who can afford that much money on a novelty. As an example, look at the MacBook Air. It came out, it didn’t change the world. I’m sure a bunch of people bought them.

      If I’m carrying around a phone and a laptop, can the iPad replace either? No. It can’t even replace a netbook. If I’m the type who doesn’t want to carry a computer with me, then would I carry around the 10″ tablet? It’s not exactly gonna fit into a pocket/purse.

      I’ve seen this “trying to make it fit your current thinking” because yeah, people all have existing lives this device has to fit into. The only people that are going to make their life fit this device are hardcore gadget fiends and macheads. Not exactly a world changer here.

  8. Jimmy Suggs

    Translation: Mac products are for people who are either old or stupid.

    Thanks for boiling it down so well.

    Personally I think Apple restricts multitasking simply to avoid having dumb people complain about poor battery use after running 10 apps at the same time. Chances are there are a lot of really stupid people out there who won’t realize the strain running multiple apps could have on their device, so rather than educate those folks, Apple’s decided to just remove the option entirely.

    Bottom line: when I pay 400 bucks for a device, I’m gonna use it any damn way I want to. If I want to stir my coffee with it, then that’s what I’ll do. Apple’s job is to make the technology available, not to tell us how to use it. We’ll decide what we do with the items we purchase, thanks.

    Regardless, I have zero doubt that eventually, Apple will allow at least limited multitasking. They’re going to have to if they want to keep up with the marketplace. Unless they’re making devices strictly for grandma, they’re going to have to cave in at least slightly to consumer demand. And the demand is coming, believe me. Once upon a time, cars didn’t come with seatbelts. When the first models were introduced with seatbelts, consumer demand grew to the point where eventually every car had them. Same thing will happen with multitasking. It’s inevitable. Even dumb ol’ grandma may want to do more than 2 things at once one day.

  9. If the iPad is a “consumer” device, then why does it have iWork?

    How do I work on a document in Pages while checking it against my assignment? I guess I’l just go into Evernote and print it off… wait, what?

    • Allister

      Err, have you tried that task yet? Didn’t think so.

      My guess would be iWork would remember state so you could just quit, go to Evernote or whatever, then return. No big deal.

    • @Jeffrey – I was estimating based off what I currently experience with Beejive… that number could vary between applications and what you’re doing in that application.

      My point is that there’s going to be a noticeable wait between switching apps — not a good user experience. IMing and browsing the web is going to be annoying compared to a multitask environment (as it already is on the iPhone).

    • Allister

      Sometimes it takes me over a minute to switch apps on my Core2 Duo iMac. Why? Because I’m overloading it beyond the design limit. It’s only got 2Gb of RAM, but I run Firefox with dozens of tabs, Adium, Tweetie and Skype as a minimum. Then I have Lightroom open for a day or two while I work through processing my photos, then I need to fire up Photoshop to do some work on some web graphics. It’s slow and horrible. But it is most definitely ‘full’ multitasking.

    • @Allister — How about this, before you switch to any other application on your iMac, you close the program you’re currently using, then open the new one.

      You will likely never run out of memory again, but I guarantee if you’ll want multitasking back, even if it does get a bit slow when *you* overload the system.

    • Allister

      Actually my brother works exactly like that and swears by it. You’re right I wouldn’t like it. But my point is that maybe the iPad isn’t designed to multitask in the general sense. Just like my iMac isn’t designed to cope with the load I give it.

      I’m still at a loss to why everyone thinks this device should behave like one they already have. That’s not what it was designed for!

    • What Mike is saying. If the iPad has iWork, it’s a productivity tool, but there’s nothing productive about five seconds minimum just to switch apps. I’m not even expecting to have them side by side at 1024×768 (even if that was perfectly fine15 years ago).

  10. michael meyers

    I cannot work without multi-tasking and to diss it is going beyond being a fan to a blind fanatic… The answer is then to not buy the ipad if you do multi-tasking.

  11. Michael Tomlin

    The next version of the OS will address some of these issues. The notification system is due for an overhaul. Apple is well aware of limitations and prefers not to just bolt on fixes and features. They are very good at making new functionality work in way that doesn’t disrupt old methods.

    Small screens are lousy for window-based GUI. The design paradigm with the iPhone and iPad are a single-task, single-focused interface. The whole screen becomes the workspace, which enhances usability and efficiency.

    I read an article today, that backs up what I’ve always believed to be Apple’s next logical step in “backgrounding” (the first being push notifications), and that is to build in a Dashboard like layer where widgets can live and run, even in the background. Webkit is pretty much always on in the OS anyway, widgets are nothing more than Webkit based applets, made up using CSS, HTML and Javascript. With a simple gesture, the widgets fly in and out of view.

    This doesn’t completely solve multitasking limitations, but it does offer another avenue for simple tasks, including music streaming for the net.

  12. This post is what I have come to expect from the devoted Steve Jobs followers. “If Steve says we don’t need it, we don’t!!”.

    The fact remains that multitasking on this type of device is a must. I agree that in a phone it is less of a requiremement but for a device that was billed as a productivity device, having no multitasking is just lazy.

    • Allister

      Listen to yourself. Patrick actually gave some arguments for why he thinks we don’t need it. And then you go and say “it’s a must”. So what, we’re bowing to the wrong Steve? It should be you?

  13. If Apple would just release some sort of development kit to allow SOME applications to do SOME activities in the background it would solve this problem. Example. Allow Pandora to scale itself down and only allow the output of audio so the user can quit the program, save some memory, but still listen to music in the background just like the iPod app does. Also if Apple would get off it’s ass and release an iChat for iPhone that would solve the need for having backgrounding on for chat applications (assuming Apple allows certain processes to run in the background and integrates iChat into the OS better).

    I agree that full on multitasking is overrated as 99% of users won’t ever need more than one or two applications open at any one time. But it would be nice to be able to do some multitasking, even if it is limited. Having 10 applications open like WebOS users seem to think is necessary, is stupid. But having one or two applications, a chat app, a music app or something like that is more than a reasonable expectation.

  14. Adrian Miller

    Pat, while I don’t disagree that the average user is likely to not require multi-tasking, there is a sizable minority, such as myself, who would find it helpful. Also, when you are working on a relatively small screen as found with the iPhone, the lack of multi-tasking is less of an issue.

    However, as the work area (screen) becomes larger, the ability to carry on an iChat while surfing the web, reading email or navigating through iTunes becomes more important.

    While Apple, Jobs in particular, has been good at knowing what is really important – remember when they killed off the fire wire port – I think the iPad and perhaps the iPhone should offer the option of multi-tasking for those of us who find it useful.

  15. I think multitasking means different things for different people. I think we eventually do a single task at a time. I think if the individual applications are opened back to the same state it was closed, I think that will address a lot of daily usage frustrations. I think the background notifications which are time based events (calendar, reminders, alerts) need to improve from their current form of implementation.

    • The definition of multitasking on a computer is very straightforward. It means running multiple programs at the same time. Moreover, it is necessary. Even though you may focus on one program at a time, nearly all computer tasks require the usage of multiple programs. If you are writing a paper, for example, it is usually necessary to have a browser and word processor open at the same time. This is so you can refer to the text as you type.

      Can you imagine having to flip between applications as you type? What a horrific waste of time and a hit to productivity. The alternative is to print the source, which is an enormous waste of paper; simply because Apple is too asinine to allow more than one app at a time.

      Make no mistake, the lack of computer multitasking is an ENORMOUS backwards step.

  16. Jason Harris

    I’m going to admit ignorance here, so please correct me if I’m wrong on what I see on the multitasking, but the lack of is what killed my enthusiasm for the iPad. I was looking to replace my netbook, which is not used for anything too productive, mostly slacking off at work.

    I typically will run a music player, an IM app (which also checks my email and twitter for updates) and a browser. Can I have all of these things running on the iPad? It’s not like I’m asking for virtual desktops to run photoshop on here, this is pretty basic stuff. You can use the argument that non-tech old people get flustered with doing more than one task, but I have a strong feeling the entire device is going to intimidate the hell out of those people.

    Your average internet using 20-30something does twitter, does facebook, looks at websites, has music on, has instant messenger up…..these aren’t crazy tasks, and the impression i’m getting is that it would not be possible on the iPad. This is a huge problem.

    The point where the original author seems to get confused is comparing this device to a phone. These limitations are not that big of a deal in a phone….but this device is not a phone. It’s a computing device. It doesn’t fit in my pocket, it requires me carry around a case and everything else just like a laptop does. If it can’t replace my netbook, why would I carry it around? I’m willing to forgive the lack of keyboard, or a USB port to plug in my iPod classic with all of my music on it so I can play my music….but the fact that basically I can browse on it and nothing else unless I want to kill the browser? Sweet computer, bro. Even my mom wants to IM/chat with people while browsing.

  17. mike2078

    I totally agree with your article.

    That’s why iPad isn’t a workhorse. It’s made to enjoy media and browse your favorite websites and some lightweight gaming.

    And for this purpose I don’t need multitasking! quite the opposite! When I browse the web on my sofa at home – I’d rather take the iPhone instead of my macbook. Its a nicer approach to browse the web.

    With MobileMe I’m always notified when a new message arrives – and the iTunes remote does a good job controlling my macbooks iTunes library and streams, which plays music via airport express on the hifi system…

  18. From the standpoint of a student, multitasking is completely necessary. At any given time doing schoolwork, I have at least 5 apps open, using all of them within cycles of ten minutes. Mail and Adium (for class group communication), any number of iWork apps or TextEdit, Chrome, and iTunes. These are all (excluding iTunes) necessary to getting my work done. Research papers, homework, whatever. I need more than one app open without having to quit another.

  19. What a sadly uniformed read that was!

    The iPod Touch/iPhone ALREADY have had multitasking from day 1 – you can listen to music through the iPod app and do anything else you want. You can also talk on the phone and bring up Safari and email at the same time.

    Problem is Apple decides what can be run as a background process.

    I can’t stream music via Pandora,, NPR, Stitcher, and a multitude of other internet radio apps and run a GPS app at the same time on my iPhone in the car – that is a HUGE negative in my book.

    I don’t even care about extra power drain at that point because my iPhone is ALWAYS plugged into my DC power socket.

  20. I’m sure that programmers care a lot about multi-tasking. I don’t, and I even know what “multi-tasking” means. As long as the device does what I need, I’m happy.

  21. Cykiller

    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.


  22. FlyersNY81

    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!

    • 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.

  23. @ 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.

  24. Allister

    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.

    • acutelyaware

      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.

  25. 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…

    • HCWHunter

      @ 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.

  26. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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…

    • Jason Harris

      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.