Apple on Thursday triumphantly announced iPhone OS 4, which will finally bring iPhone and iPad users what the company calls “true multi-tasking.” The feature, which rival smartphones have had for months, allows users to run multiple applications at the same time and switch seamlessly between them on the iPhone 3GS and iPad. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
“We weren’t the first to this party, but we’re going to be the best,” CEO Steve Jobs said during yesterday’s big unveiling, to thunderous golf claps.
But Apple’s new multitasking solution isn’t the “best,” not when compared to what other smartphones have, not compared to what other tablets have, and certainly not compared to what computers have. In fact, it’s an admittedly sexy fraud that isn’t really multitasking at all.
After the release of iPhone OS 4 (set to launch this summer for iPhone users and this fall for the iPad), you still won’t be able to run multiple programs simultaneously. Instead, all you’ll be able to do is run a handful of Apple-approved functions – called APIs — in the background while you’re working in a single other application. Developers will need to spend the time adding this functionality to each and every single one of their applications; Apple is simply providing them the tools to mimic multitasking.
Specifically, Apple’s new operating system will permit applications to launch one of seven low-resource, pre-approved APIs when you switch out of them to head to another application. The most important of these APIs are location-based services, audio streaming, and Voice over Internet Protocol capabilities. This means that you can keep receiving directions from your TomTom GPS application after you close the app, and it means you’ll be able to close Skype but keep talking using the VOIP functionality. Using the audio API, iPhone and iPad users will finally be able to listen to Pandora Internet radio while running another application.
For some users, this will be just as good as genuine multitasking, which allows multiple programs to run simultaneously in their entirety. You might not be able to keep applications open, the theory goes, but at least you can keep approximations of them running with Apple’s APIs while you work elsewhere.
The problem is that quite a few applications will not be able to remain functional after they’re closed in the new iPhone OS because Apple’s list of pre-approved APIs is necessarily small. In the event that you try to multitask with applications that don’t work with those limited APIs, the illusion of having the “best” in-class multitasking capability crumbles instantly.
If you’re playing a game, for instance, and you decide to switch over and check your mail, the new iPhone operating system will inelegantly freeze the application – otherwise known as “saving its state” – and quickly resume when you switch back over to it. That’s because there’s no pre-approved “game API” that will permit the program to do anything in the background while you’re working on other things, as it would on a typical computer.
That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, since you’d want most games paused when you leave them, anyway. But now imagine that you want to carry on an instant messaging conversation while reading in the Wall Street Journal app. On a computer, or even most Android-enabled smartphones, you can send instant messages without ever exiting the newspaper application. This is because both the instant messaging client and the newspaper application are allowed to run concurrently.
But on the iPhone — and, far more egregiously, the iPad – you’re out of luck. There won’t be any “instant messaging” API, so you won’t be able to manipulate your instant messages from within other programs. You’ll simply receive a push notification from your frozen chat client while you’re reading the paper informing you that you have an instant message that needs your attention. You’ll then have to exit the Journal app, wait while its state is saved into memory, use the sexy new ‘multitasking tray’ to open up the instant messaging client, send a response, close the instant messaging client, wait for its state to be saved into memory, and then, finally, return to the Journal app right where you left it. Sound convenient?
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This is still an improvement over the iPhone and iPad’s current setup, which requires users to unceremoniously quit programs entirely before they can do something else. It should be noted, though, that the process of saving an application’s state to flash memory will take some time — up to five seconds. (Certain applications that don’t use a significant amount of resources can be sidelined much more quickly by using what Apple calls “fast-app switching,” meaning that they can be kept in memory, but most resource-intensive applications won’t be able to take advantage of this feature.)
There is simply no way to describe this as the “best” multitasking solution available for devices in the iPhone and iPad’s class. It’s more akin to sleek “task switching” than true multitasking, which would keep all programs in memory and allow instant access to them at all times. But the awkward feature announced yesterday was the only solution Apple had available.
Here’s why. From day one, when Apple released the iPhone software development kit to developers, the company told developers that they were free to make use of all the available random access memory (RAM) on the device. There wasn’t much of it – even current versions of the iPhone only have 256 MB – but developers designed their applications with this freedom in mind.
That made developers’ lives easier, but it also made a true multitasking solution impossible from the get-go. If every application thinks it can use all of the iPhone or iPad’s available memory, only one thing will happen when several applications are independently running full-speed at the same time: the device, which incidentally lacks the capacity to properly handle memory strain, will simply crash. Assuming the battery doesn’t die first from the information overload, that is.
That was a mistake that Palm was careful not to repeat when it released its Pre smartphone last summer. Pre uses a different development model from the iPhone, and all of the phone’s applications use far less RAM than comparable programs on the iPhone. That makes it feasible for Palm’s operating system to keep multiple programs open side-by-side, without killing the battery and without causing dreaded “out of memory” errors.
But Apple’s so-called “next-generation” iPhone OS is actually outmatched in the smartphone market not just by Palm’s operating system, but also by Google’s increasingly popular Android. What’s more, in the tablet arena, competitors to the iPad are (and have been for years) light-years ahead of Apple’s new multitasking solution. The upcoming HP Slate tablet, for example, will run the Windows 7 operating system — which, as anyone who uses a desktop computer knows, enables true multitasking, with programs running independently of one another with no compromises.
In some ways, though the company’s rhetoric is misleading, it’s hard to fault Apple here because they’re still trying to work around a mistake they made years ago, when they created the foundation for the original iPhone’s app ecosystem. But the company’s decision to continue using the iPhone’s hobbled operating system on the iPad is more difficult to excuse. It’s left the company in an embarrassing scramble to make their new product look like a genuine multitasking-capable tablet, since it can’t behave like one.
“We shipped the iPad on Saturday,” Jobs declared yesterday. “Then, on Sunday, we rested.”
People are buying it — in more ways than one. Even respected technology writers and columnists have been ensnared by the company’s reality distortion field. As recently as this week, for example, prominent tech blog Ars Technica actually praised Apple for not including multitasking at all in the iPad.
“One of the reasons some of us like the iPad is because it forces us to stop trying, and usually failing, to do so much at once,” the site’s iPad review states, without hint of irony. “Focusing on one task is mentally liberating, especially to those of us who tend to go overboard with tabs, open applications, and stress in our normal computing lives.” (One wonders whether the editors at Ars will refuse to download iPhone OS 4 on principle.)
Look for the stressful, mentally enslaving iPhone OS 4 to drop in a few months. Developers can begin going overboard with tabs and open applications right now by grabbing the software development kit. That is, if they aren’t shut out by Apple’s new draconian and possibly illegal restrictions on how they can produce their software.
To be fair, there’s certainly other things in iPhone OS 4 that are actually worth celebrating, namely Apple’s new social service for mobile gamers and the long-overdue abilities to change the iPhone’s wallpaper and organize applications into folders.
What’s disconcerting is Apple’s insistence on celebrating what, by any other company’s standard, would be considered a defeat.
WATCH THE ‘AIR QUOTES’ MULTITASKING IN ACTION