Mobile Multitasking and iOS 4

I’ve used a number of mobile devices over the years, and there are a couple of things in my usage pattern that stand out:

  • Speed is a feature. I need to be able to go from email to my calendar to SMS and back again effortlessly and quickly.
  • The mobile web is slow. Even with the faster 3G/4G networks, the initial connection takes time and loading up a webpage or similar isn’t something you want to be blocking your usage of the rest of the device.

I have previously owned 2 iPhones (original and 3GS) and I currently use an iPod touch and an iPad. I found the iPhone to be extremely useful in certain situations and extremely limited and frustrating in others. Most of the frustrations are around the concept of multitasking.

When using one of my current iOS devices, I’m typically on pretty fast WiFi and the network lag is pretty much acceptable. When using a device on a mobile network, this is not the case. That’s when multitasking becaomes important.

Currently I use a BlackBerry, and previously was using a Palm Pre Plus. On either of those devices, it was easy to do the following:

  1. Start a web page loading
  2. Go do something else (read an email, check calendar, etc.)
  3. Go back to web page and it has loaded

Another common example for me:

  1. Launch a dedicated podcasting client1
  2. Start a podcast playing
  3. Use the device to do something else (check email, surf the web, etc.)

These are things I just can’t do on an iOS device. Turns out I don’t care much about fast app switching and saving state – what I really want is the ability to multitask on the device.

The fast app switching has been a throw-away feature for me. In my usage, it’s not any faster than going to the home screen and clicking on an app – especially because on the home screen I know where the app I want to launch will be; I don’t have to go hunting for it. Sometimes I invoke fast app switching, then have to horizontally scroll a bit because I forgot it was further away in the stack than I remembered. Having 2 ways to launch/switch between apps just hasn’t been useful to me.2

In discussing this with friends (most of them only had experience with iOS devices), I was surprised to learn that they didn’t even know that other platforms (Android, BlackBerry, webOS) didn’t have this limitation. The mobile landscape is still in its infancy. I’m sure we’ll look back in 5 years at the compromises in today’s devices and shake our heads.

UPDATE: I’d forgotten that apps can now play music in the background with the latest iOS release. However, they can’t download podcasts in the background, so I have to leave the app open while it downloads instead of switching to something more interesting/productive.

  1. Podcasts are not available quickly enough through iTMS (they are delayed a few hours, which means they aren’t available on my drive home) so using the iPod app isn’t an option. Also, the iPod app can only play files loaded via sync or the purchase – so there is no way to get the podcasts loaded in to the iPod app on the go except via iTMS. [back]
  2. I’m not terribly surprised, bolting on afterthought features to an OS rarely works out well. [back]