One of the things discussed about the new Apple tablet, other than its lack of Flash, is its apparent lack of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking, of course, being the ability to listen to music or radio while playing Flight Control. I’d like to talk about that, because I’m pretty sure I know why there’s no multi-tasking, and if you’ll let me attempt prescience for a moment, I’m going to let you in on the secret.
Multi-tasking doesn’t work well enough yet. That is also to say that when it does, Apple will feed a system update which adds this feature; to the pad and phone alike. It’ll be just like when you all got copy and paste.
I’m an Android fellow. I cannot accept the closed platform that is the Apple ecosystem. The fact that I’d have to open iTunes to get stuff on to my phone instead of being completely unrestricted, is something I couldn’t ever imagine settling for. Additionally, I am enjoying multi-tasking on my Android phone today; I’m listening to podcasts via Google Listen while browsing Wikipedia, and it’s a bliss I’m sure iPhone OS users will appreciate soon enough.
Even so, the Android implementation of multi-tasking is an example of why Apple hasn’t done it yet. Gruber was boggled by the need for a task killer on the platform, and frankly — so am I. Which is key to this issue. A single-tasking platform closes every app when a new app is invoked. The robo-logistics are simple: “Home” means “Save & Close”. Because this is simple, it works. Transparently, easily, and without the need to peek inside the system to see what’s running and what shouldn’t be.
Both Android and iPhone OS are pioneering new ways to interact with computers (which incidentally is why I now prefer these OSes on principle, over Windows, Linux and OSX). The new trend is to tuck away the filesystem; to whittle down all the nerdy stuff. To make it feel obsolete and unnecessary. You don’t drop your music into a folder, you drop it onto your phone and then sort it using meta information such as artist, year, album and so on. You also no longer window manage. You don’t open an app, you enter Google Listen. You don’t close an app, you press “Home”. If you were playing a podcast, it keeps playing even as you enter the browser to explore Wikipedia. If you weren’t playing a podcast, the system cleans up any stray processes for you, so the system doesn’t spend memory that isn’t needed. It’s all very elegant, and once you get used to it, closing apps feels very 1990.
Except it’s not as elegant as it sounds. Because apps themselves decide when they’re done using your battery and not all apps are good citizens. Sometimes you’ll click “home” with the intent of not going back to your game of Robo Defence. But Robo Defence isn’t sure what you want, so it’s just paused your game. Which means goodbye battery. Which means you need a task killer, whose sole raison d’etre is giving you a neat list of which apps are running in the background and the ability to forcefully close them.
I’m sure Android will get there. Development is moving at a blinding pace; in fact things may already be better in version 2.1. In the meantime, I’ll be loving my Google Listen background process. Even if it means I need a task killer. Once Android grows up, I’m saying a fond goodbye to my task killer, and I will never look back. But I’m not a normal user. I’m not one to be impressed by Apples “only launch when perfect” ideology, I much prefer Googles “launch early, iterate often” approach. I’m also smart enough to understand why Apple postpones multi-tasking until they get it right. Which is when you’ll get multi-tasking on your iPhones and iPads.
[Update]: Michael points out in the comments, that the iPhone has been able to play podcasts in the background since launch. My bad example. Please appropriate “Google Listen” with “Pandora” and my example will make sense again.