iPad competitors: Will the true multitasking please stand up?

One of the most persistent complaints levied against the iPhone and iPad were/are the lack of multitasking. This, of course, has always been silly. However, now that BlackBerry QNX PlayBook</a>, Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets like Xoom, and HP webOS 3.0's TouchPad are set to launch, "true multitasking" is again finding its way into the bullet points of competitively positioned slide decks and ad campaigns. It's still silly but it's also more complicated now.

Does iOS offer "true multitasking", does its competitors? Let's take a look, after the break.

The no iOS multitasking myth

Going back to the original iPhone's introduction in 2007, Steve Jobs' demonstration clearly showed music fading out as a call came in, staying on a call while browsing the web or sending email, and music fading back in as a call ended. Those of us who had Treo's at the time were astounded at how smooth iPhone multitasking was, and how it didn't crash or reboot the phone once.

From launch, the iPhone had great multitasking. It just didn't have 3rd party apps. Fast forward to 2008 and iOS 2, the App Store launched and while Apple's own apps continued to enjoy great multitasking, 3rd party App Store apps weren't allowed any background processes at all. This kept things nice and simple and stable for a certain group of consumers but frustrated power users to no end.

Fast forward again to 2010 and iOS 4 (specifically 4.2 for iPad) and Apple set up a system to allow App Store apps limited multitasking. Not fake multitasking. Not untrue multitasking. But limited multitasking. Apps that were transferring data could keep the connection alive in the background for a short length of time after exit to finish the transfer (like a photo upload or status stream download). Music apps like Pandora could be streamed in the background. VoIP (Voice over IP) apps like Skype to keep a process in the background to receive or continue calls. Turn-by-turn navigation apps like TomTom could keep giving voice directions in the background. True multitasking all, it addressed a huge percentage of mainstream needs. (Not all needs mind you, persistent internet connections for SSH, etc. would have been nice for power users...)

In addition Apple added a few others things to enhance the "appearance" of multitasking from a user perspective. Instead of just leaving apps running forever in the background, using battery power and system resources and requiring user intervention to manage, Apple created a way to "save state" on exit. So, the next time an app launches it's in the same place it was when last it was used. They also (re-)set double click on Home to launch a fast app switcher dock. Hidden behind the regular dock, invisible to users who don't need or want it, it can be called up to quickly jump between recently used apps (or to expose controls for audio, brightness, etc). Not at all "true" multitasking but important when it comes to the perception of multitasking.

It's a compromise solution, one that tries to address the aforementioned battery life and resource issues with ease of use and convenience and while it's not perfect and could use some improvement, it's pretty good. (Especially when you see how fast some competing devices chew through battery life.)

It's also something that might be addressed further when iPad 2 -- with more RAM and processing power -- and iOS 5 are shown off sometime this spring.

Competitive multitasking

RIM's QNX-powered BlackBerry Playbook, HP's webOS 3.0-powered TouchPad, and the slew of Google's upcoming Android 3.0-powered tablets, spearheaded by the Motorola Xoom, are all more or less touting "true multitasking" as a competitive advantage over the iPad. These are the same companies and campaigns touting Flash as the "whole internet/web" and both statements are, ironically, untrue. (We won't touch on Flash here but suffice it to say that while Flash is the most popular plugin on the web, it's far from the only plugin on the web.)

Lest you think this partisan or apologist, Kevin from CrackBerry.com was quick to point this out back during CES when RIM first spoke about true multitasking -- what functionality does it provide to the end user?

Having a movie or video game continue to animate while in card view (webOS or Playbook variety) is great eye candy but isn't functionally any better or truer multitasking than having it save state or pause and then resume when brought back to the foreground. You can't interact with it when in background and more importantly -- you can't interact with multiple cards the way you can with multiple windows on a PC which really does offer true pre-emptive multitasking. To the best of my knowledge you can't watch a movie and play a game at the same time, or drag and drop content between browsers and document editors, for example.

Cards (again webOS or Playbook) are a brilliant and elegant way to visualize multitasking for end users but until you can start dragging and dropping data between them the way you can on a Mac or Windows they're functionally no better than the fast app switcher on iOS.

iOS, in fact, used card view before either webOS or PlayBook -- Pages in Mobile Safari date way back to the original iPhone -- Apple simply lacked the vision to (or chose not to) exploit them throughout the OS. (Even in Safari on iPad I'd argue a tabbing system would be more functional than the grid of pages we now enjoy.)

So while I'd dearly love for Apple repatriate cards/page to the iPad multitasking OS, I'd really only love it if it came with that multiple usage functionality. And when/if that comes, I hope Apple can figure out a way that isn't at the expense of mainstream usability. (If part of the success of iOS is attributable to Apple ruthlessly cutting away everything and anything that wasn't simple and easy for consumers to use, is complexity creep -- while desirable to power users -- the best thing for the platform as a whole?)

Android 3.0 Honeycomb seems to be bringing more of the desktop metaphor to the tablet space, including more multitasking. Their user interface and user experience, however, still seem to be on the back-burner. (Apple's priorities are almost directly inverse to Google's in that regard.)

The truth about true

The iPad multitasks fine. webOS and the strikingly similar BlackBerry tablet OS multitask with better visualization but it's arguable about whether or not that's "truer" and I'd argue it isn't. Further, I'd argue that at this point it really doesn't matter in terms of end user functionality. Android 3.0 Honeycomb may multitask more like a desktop but that's neither more true nor proven better for a wide swath of users. Buried in all that, however, are a few important truths. The pad/tablet industry is still in its infancy and Apple, Google, HP, and RIM aren't anywhere near done exploring interactions and interfaces on their devices. They're all getting better. And since there are a few really strong players (and perhaps Microsoft one day as well), consumers get choice and the competition drives all of them to get better so we consumers choose them.