iOS 7 preview: Multitasking for every app, coalesced and just-in-time

iOS 7 multitasking not only packs an all new card and icon hybrid interface, but a new way for every app to multitask, intelligently, and without a huge hit to battery life or performance.

iOS 7 finally brings multitasking to everyone on the iPhone, iPod, and iPad. And by everyone, I mean every app, at practically any time. Of course, iOS has always had fantastic multitasking. From the very first demo of the very first iPhone by Steve Jobs in 2007, its ability to fade music out, take a phone call, grab a picture and email it, then return to the phone call, hang up, and fade right back into the music seemed miraculous to the crash-prone competition of the time.

Then the App Store happened, and all those third-party apps weren't allowed anywhere near the background. Things changed in 2010 with iOS 4, when streaming music, VoIP, and turn-by-turn navigation were granted persistent access to multitasking, and many other apps were given a few minutes of leeway, and the ability to go to sleep and restart, theoretically, right where they left off. But it wasn't enough.

Thanks to some system-side smarts, however, it looks like iOS 7, along with a new interface, will make good on the multitasking promise while at the same time protect battery life and performance. If they can do it, they'll be the first to really nail multitasking on mobile.

Here's how Apple (opens in new tab) describes multitasking in iOS 7:

Multitasking has always been a smart way to switch between apps. Now it’s even smarter. Because iOS 7 learns when you like to use your apps and can update your content before you launch them. So if you tend to check your favorite social app at 9:00 a.m. every day, your feed will be ready and waiting for you. That’s multitasking in iOS 7. It knows what you want to do before you do.

And on Apple's developer portal{.nofollow}:

Keep the content of your app up-to-date by adopting the new multitasking APIs in iOS 7. The new services allow your app to update information and download content in the background without draining the battery unnecessarily. The updates can happen at opportunistic times and are intelligently scheduled according to usage, so your app can update content in the background just when your users need it.

Based on what Apple's shown off at WWDC 2013 and on the web to date, here's how the new interface, and the new functionality works:

  • Accessing multitasking still requires a double click of the Home button, which is consistent for existing users but probably not as intuitive as the upward swipe seen on some other platforms. (And which Control Center has just taken on iOS.)
  • The old Fast App Switcher tray has been replaced with a new card-based interface. It looks a lot like webOS cards, though iOS Safari Pages used that mechanic first. It lacks the Stacks functionality of later versions of webOS, but it does retain the icons of the Fast App Switcher which greatly increases glance-ability.
  • Thanks to the new card-based interface, apps can be closed by touching them and tossing them away, again like webOS. Apple hasn't said if multiple cards can be tossed away at once, though iOS is multitouch and up to three cards can appear on the screen at one time...

  • Intelligent scheduling means that, if you use an app frequently - for example, if you check Facebook or Twitter constantly - iOS 7 will recognize that and allow the app to update frequently so whenever you launch it, it'll have all the latest information already waiting for you. If you use an app regularly but not frequently - for example, if you check the news when you wake up and before you go to sleep - iOS 7 will recognize that as well and allow the app to update just before you usually check it.
  • Opportunistic updates takes advantage of the many times a day you unlock your device and power up the system - for any reason - to allow apps to access background cycles.
  • Adapting to network conditions means that, whenever a radio signal is strong and power use is at a minimum, iOS 7 will allow updates that need that radio.
  • Coalesced updates recognizes that when one app powers up a radio, other apps can tag along and get their background requests done as well.
  • Push triggers fixes the years-old problem of getting a notification only to go to the app and not find the data there. Now, in iOS 7, the notification itself will trigger the update, hopefully retrieving data just before you arrive at the app.

Mobile multitasking is all about compromise. You either limit what can be done by apps, or you limit the battery life of the device running them. With iOS 7, Apple is trying to have their background and their battery life too, and they're using a lot of super-smart technology to achieve it. Instead of simply allowing persistent, pre-emptive multitasking like OS X does on the desktop, and like how some competitors do on mobile, Apple is recognizing that they have neither a power cable plugged into the wall, or a desire to offload battery and task management to their users, and they're deploying a just-in-time system to get the best of both worlds.

Perception is reality. Until we open an app, we have no way of knowing whether it was updated or not. So, iOS 7 will keep track of when we open apps and try and update them just-in-time so that, when we get there, our data is ready and waiting for us, and not us for it. Intelligent scheduling should make sure that most of the time, most of our apps are updated, however it remains to be seen what will happen when infrequently used apps are opened?

Perhaps the other systems will kick in then. Opportunistic updates, whether they're because we've turned on our iPhone, iPod, or iPad, or the radios have locked onto a good, strong signal, or another app is firing up a radio and letting hitchhikers come along for the ride, there should be plenty of chances for plenty of apps to update when they'll have the least impact on the system but the most on making sure our data is present for when we want and need it.

Likewise, updating on push notification is huge. Many times I've had to go back to Notification Center to try and glean as much as I can from the tiny preview text in an alert because the actual message is taking so long to actually come in. Now, the notification itself will tell the app to update, and hopefully it'll be quick about it.

Whether this applies to content as well as data is unclear. Apple hasn't said anything publicly yet about whether episodic or periodical content can "wake up" the system and cause a download in advance of our going to look for it. Newsstand works that way now, and rumors of Apple's iTunes and Podcasts apps getting the same ability have persisted since iOS 6. Come release, will we see that kind of update functionality everywhere? What exactly developers will be able to do, and what they'll be able to figure out around it, remains to be seen.

The new interface, however, is wicked obvious. The Fast App Switcher was never a great solution. Apple reportedly tested other metaphors for iOS 4 before they settled on it, including something like OS X Expose, but Safari Pages, not to mention webOS cards, was always the most sensible solution. Cards not only match the physicality of iOS 7 in general, they're something almost everyone is familiar with already.

Not that it looks perfect yet. Making Home a card might help ensure mainstream users aren't confused about how to find Home, but there's a Home button for that. All it does in card view is ruin the metaphor and complicate the mechanics.

In webOS, every instance of an app could have a card. For example, you could have multiple web pages open at the same time in card view, or multiple email message drafts ready and waiting. There's an argument to be made that one app, one card is simpler, but it's also less powerful. webOS used Stacks to even better organize workflows. Again, greater complexity, but greater functionality.

Tossing cards away is also a much better model than iOS 4 - iOS 6 implemented. Holding icons down until they jiggle, and tapping tiny X icons, conflating app deletion on the Home screen, wasn't great for anybody.

The addition of the icons to the card view in iOS 7 is a huge win, however. Cards capture static views from the apps they represent, but those views might not be recognizable. Icons are made to be recognizable, even at a glance. Cards and icons together provide both information and discoverability. Back before iOS 6, I and many others hoped for a better fast app switcher and for the most part, Apple exceeded those hopes.

And it can only get better from here.

The updated multitasking interface and functionality will ship as part of iOS 7 this fall. Check out the resources below for more, and let me know - is iOS 7 multitasking everything you wanted it be? Did Apple strike the right balance, or is something still missing?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • The perfect app for this intelligent multitasking is the podcasts app (or any podcast app, really). Forcing a refresh each morning at say 6 am when I wake up should, in theory, train the app to check for me, no?
  • You don't have to. Podcast apps like Instacast already receive notifications when new episodes are available. What developers will do from now on is: when a notification comes, iOS will not display it to you, will open the app and download the episode, when the episode is finished, iOS will trigger a local notification alerting you.
  • That will be awesome. That is what I want. I hate, half way to work, remembering I didn't open the app to start the download (audio downloads are blocked at work) - then end up needlessly chewing through data.
  • Nice solution for a 4" inch smartphone, bad for a tablet display.
  • People seem ok using Alt-Tab on a full sized screen desktop. I didn't hear complaints about webos multitasking on a touchpad so i think it will be a solid user experience. People will simply have to adjust.
  • Multitasking on the Pre and the TouchPad were the exact same and both were mostly flawless in my opinion. I am more of a fan of the swipe up gesture that web os used but double tapping the home button is a nice alternative, just not as smooth in actual action.
  • I am also really worried about the ipad design
  • Another great in depth article!
  • is there going to be a close all running apps bottom instead of closing one by one at a time?
  • Never needed it, doubt I will ever need to. Aren't apps frozen when minimised to begin with? The only time I had to force-close an app is if it starts acting up.
  • You can swipe three cards away at a time. Someone in the forums discovered it. Sent from the iMore App
  • It's much better. But I would like it to be fast for switching from one app to another (yes I do have the beta so I do know what I'm talking about) Sent from the iMore App
  • Totally agree !
    We live in a world of assimilating and sharing information from different sources and so it's imperative to have task/app switching as seamless as possible.
    Loose the double click and incorporate touch based functionality... But then who's listening ?! Sent from the iMore App
  • Nice read, thanks
  • There is a "home" card in the new multitasking/switcher interface. It's pictured (literally) in the first photo of this post, to the left of the Safari card.
  • The ability for developers to refresh content in the background is the biggest, most welcome change in iOS7.
  • Would that work for apps like mailbox? Currently, I have to open the app for it to start downloading incoming mail, and it always takes at least a few seconds before I can start accessing my mail to read. If so, that would be real sweet.
  • Not automatically - the developers of Mailbox would have to update their app to take advantage of this capability, but in ios 7 they have that option, whereas currently they do not.
  • And they probably will. Just checking to make sure my understanding of the new feature was correct. Thanks for the clarification!
  • excellent article and truth of webOS being ahead of its time is a nice I'm very happy Apple went this route and decided to use a true multitasking solution typing this from my Touchpad only makes it seem so enjoyable that webOS will live on in my newly adopted OS
  • I still wouldn't call it "true" multitasking, but it is a huge step forward. Very excited to apps take advantage of this.
  • Call it what you like, it doesn't matter but if I did I'd call it "truly smart" multitasking.
  • Too bad that multitasking still requires a double click of the Home button. The home button is my least favorite part of the iDevice. It just feels as if they assigned too many context sensitive functions to it....turns on screen, opens home page, toggles home page & search, opens running apps, launches Siri....just too much. The rest of it looks really good....huge improvement.
  • To be fair, it's not really intended as a way to turn on the screen, and it doesn't toggle between hime page and search in iOS 7. Other than it's single click, "take me to the home page" function, it has the double-click function of multi-tasking, and the click-pause function of Siri. If anything they should remove Siri to a gesture, but still … only 3 functions really, two of which are closely related.
  • I wish it was gesture-based too, if only because the home buttons don't seem to stand up to heavy usage.
  • The Home button is essential "similar" to the feeling of the Windows Start. If a user gets lost or confused, a physical button is the place to go. At the same time, a button can only have so many states (options).
  • Great article and great "new" feature !!
  • Perhaps not intended as an ON button, but with any available bug or feature users will decide how and when to use it. Most people i know use that button to turn the phone on. I have had to show all my non-tech friends how to use the wake/sleep button on their iDevice as they all use the Home button to turn it on and wait for the screen to auto sleep. It seems obvious as an on/off button. Less obvious for all other tasks...especially the hold for Siri and dbl click for running apps. The home page/search toggle was the most frustrating for me as I only rarely use the search but would accidentally end up there often. Glad to see that at least that part is going away. I guess in iOS 11 Siri will just "know" when I am talking to it and not require a button. Then we'll be down to just 3 functions.
  • Android user here with a question for the iOS crowd: As a former webOS user, I'm certainly glad to see the card view make a comeback. However, it seems like this style of task-switching encourages manually killing apps. (by "throwing them" off the screen) In webOS this was a good thing because that OS didn't have a way to automatically manage it's own memory - you literally HAD to manually kills apps or eventually you couldn't open any new ones. The existing iOS task switcher doesn't show you a list of running apps - it just shows you the last n number of apps you've used. You can, of course, manually kill them by long pressing and then tapping the "x". But unless you knew how to do that, you likely never would assume that was something you could do. So I guess the point of my rambling is this: will this new task-switching UI inadvertently "train" users into manually killing apps? (when in reality they don't need to and in fact probably shouldn't?)
  • You do have a point. With the new UI, force-shutting apps is so easy that I can see users doing so just for the "fun" of it, even though there is no real need to. That said, I don't see any drawback to this, since after some time, an app that has been inactive for some time is usually "force-closed" anyways to free up resources for newer apps. Is there anything I am overlooking?
  • I can't speak for iOS, but I know that the Android pros definitely discourage you from manually killing apps - except in cases where an app is crashing/mis-behaving/etc. In the early days of Android, it didn't do a very good job of managing its own memory and as a result "task killing" apps became very popular. Once Android evolved and handled memory management better, task killing apps went the way of the dinosaur. Not only were they not necessary, but manually killing apps actually decreased overall performance. (basically the message from Google was: let Android manage its own memory - it knows what it's doing and you don't) Again, I don't know enough about the inner workings of iOS to know if there are any real parallels to be drawn here. But even if it causes no harm, it seems like an undesirable concept to advertise to users. The times when you actually NEED to manually kill an app in iOS are (I'm assuming) very few and far between.
  • Well,Renee another great article,I haven't like most haven't used iOS 7 yet,but from what I've seen and read about it,it's going to be a big improvement from iOS 6,I read all the stuff people have been saying about it,and those people who aren't happy with it are entitled to their ,opinion but really guys look at what jony and his team have given us,better multitasking,toggles,notifications,I could go on and on,look at the time he had to do all this in, man it's , amazing we have got this,I think ,ios7 the user experience will be 100% better for people.
    The problem is Apple can't win in one way, no matter what they do people will always say, well they didn't do that or they didn't do this,I think before people start to knock ios7 they should Waite and use it first,I my self was sad that there is no proper files system,but at least we have, Airdrop and the files system might come in a future iOS.
    Any way, guys this is just my personal opinion and I'm very excited for ios7 . Sent from the iMore App
  • My Multitasking Problem is still with its use of Double Taping. Unless Apple could solve this hardware problem with its Home Button Multitasking will make the Home button fail a lot more.
  • Thanks for the article Rene, I do enjoy reading about the new iOS7. I am, though, not sure I understand what is meant by 'multi tasking' and it seems everyone defines 'multi tasking' slightly differently. What is described here, doesn't seem to me to be true (or full) multi tasking, but more like just-in-time production of content - the app isn't able, or allowed to update until the OS says so. Having read articles in the Crackberry forum and BB website, BB10 seems to have already got multi tasking running through its active frames, which would preclude Apple from claiming a first for multi tasking. Am I missing the point?
  • Glad to see you're giving WebOS its props. Coming from the Palm Pre (and now on an iPhone 5) I always thought parts of WebOS software on Apple hardware could be the best combination. Really looking forward to seeing Apple's version of card view multi-tasking
  • Am I the only one who is dubious over the utility offered by the new card-like interface? For one, what exactly is the benefit offered by being shown a preview of the app in question. Why wouldn't I know what exactly my app is or looks like? Also, it seems that toggling between apps is actually slower (even moreso on the ipad), since I access fewer apps at any one time?
  • I've been using ios7 beta 2 for several days now and I find the multi tasking feature annoying at best. Perhaps it's my 'fat fingers' but I can't seem to get the card I want accurately. It slides around and I either miss or relaunch apps. Trying to slide up to quit becomes an operation in frustration. I'm not saying I liked the way it was before. But the current iteration isn't much better. Also, I would much prefer a quit all. That's ultimately what I do anyway when I'm closing apps. Not closing one at a time.
  • The wait for iOS 7 is really killing me but i am determined to wait for the official release rather than downloading the BETA.
  • it's good to finally see a webOS update!
  • i just found out that with my ipad mini running on the current iOS 6 version that if your in an app and you use 4 finger's and swipe from right to left you go into the app you last used and then the one after that. i didnt know we could do that anybody else know that?
  • You must be a comedian. You actually said that iOS had fantastic multi-tasking from the start. Do you know what multi-tasking means? iOS did not have multi-tasking at all until iOS 7. What Apple called multi-tasking was simply a complete lie.