Do You Really Need Multitasking?

April 8th, 2010 27 Comments

Maybe you noticed Apple announced today a bunch of new features will be coming soon to the iPhone OS, more than 100 by their count.

Top of the list for many is multitasking.

The iPhone OS has notoriously been without classic multitasking since its inception nearly three years ago. Actually, no one said boo about it when the OG iPhone came out because there was no app store.

Technically, the iPhone OS does multitask, but only for Apple’s apps, e.g. you can listen to the iPod app while doing other things, stay on a call while doing other things, etc.

However, the OS does not make multitasking available to third party app developers. The lack of multitasking in the iPhone OS has been a selling point for Apple’s competitors and has provided a reason for people to jailbreak their iPhones.

For me, the interesting point about multitasking in the iPhone OS is that it’s a classic struggle between users and product development.

People want to run multiple apps at the same time, or so they keep saying. I’ve seen a lot of use cases thrown around, and they’re all legit. The question is whether multitasking is a must-have for these users because if it is, as a PM, you want to make it happen.

Today, we found out that Apple has sold 50 million iPhones in a little less than three years.

That sounds like a lot. There’s no way to tell how much impact the lack of multitasking has on sales, but the iPhone seems like a pretty strong earner for Apple.

We also found out today that Apple sold 450,000 iPads to date. This is another device without multitasking, by virtue of running the same OS.

Based on those numbers, I don’t think multitasking has much of an impact on sales. Do you?

To me this says, a lot of people liked the iPhone/iPad enough to buy without multitasking. Whether or not they kept the device is another matter that is key for customer satisfaction and the App Store ecosystem.

Customer satisfaction holds a huge amount of weight with gadgets like the iPhone/iPad. As those of you with iPads, e.g. ahem, Floyd (@fteter) will attest, people are interested to play with them. The same was somewhat true for iPhones from what I remember.

People are curious animals, and when it comes to gadgets, they like to touch, feel and gather information to influence a purchasing decision. What better way to do that than by asking someone who already bought one.

If you’re unhappy with your device, you’ll likely take that opportunity to dissuade the person. If you love it to death, you’ll be the best advertising money can’t buy.

I suspect most people have plenty of good things to say before the lack of multitasking hits their lips. I could be wrong, but I’m not. In the case of the iPad, the lack of multitasking was a known gap way in advance. So, if someone bought an iPad, no multitasking did not matter one bit.

So, sales numbers and customer satisfaction tell me that no multitasking didn’t cripple the iPhone or iPad.

What about the App Store ecosystem?

The App Store houses hundreds of thousands of apps and supports billions of downloads.

Would developers have benefitted from multitasking? Maybe. Was it enough to stop them from building apps for the platform? No.

I think developers would complain about the App Store’s weird approval process and numerous other quibbles before getting to lack of multitasking.

All this makes the multitasking sound like a should-have feature, definitely not a must-have.

Apple has been pretty clear about why the iPhone OS did not have multitasking, and anyone familiar with them shouldn’t be surprised.

Multitasking requires system resources, which in turns use battery. The iPhone’s battery life is notoriously short, a legit problem with the device and much more important concern to Apple and users.

So, adding multitasking could only happen if it didn’t further degrade the already short battery life.

This is good product development.

Taking a holistic approach to your product and balancing the requirements of your users with the overall product and its well-being is very difficult. And it makes you look like a jerk sometimes, even if you know for a fact, you’re doing what’s right.

Adding features means adding complexity, and complexity is bad because it makes every aspect of product more difficult, even for the users who so desperately want the features. So, adding stuff should never be taken lightly, although this is rarely the case.

As an aside, maybe PM is more like being a parent than like being a CEO. Case in point is any feature users say they need because some other product has it. Do they really need it?

Anyway, I’m not surprised Apple finally added multitasking, and I’m sure it will be well-done with low impact on battery life.

I’m also glad it will not be available to me on my OG iPhone. That’s right, only the 3 GS will support multi-tasking. I’m totally fine with this because I trust that they made the right call for my device.

Now, I’m keenly interested to find out how much people actually use multitasking. After nearly three years on the iPhone, I doubt I would use multitasking more than once a month. I just don’t need it.

That’s not say it’s not valuable, so I’m hoping to get an idea of how people use it in the future.

Find the comments.

Update: As this post from RWW clarifies, the changes will not introduce true multitasking, just a close approximation. I say this is further evidence that it wasn’t really needed in the first place, i.e. if true multitasking would drain the battery so quickly, why not stick to the original stance until you can do it right?


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27 Responses to “Do You Really Need Multitasking?”

  1. jpiwowar Says:

    My initial reaction here was, “The primary use I see for multitasking is non-iPod audio apps. That's a pretty small subset of apps.” As I was typing that coment, though, my mental list got a bit longer: Games with long load times, note-taking apps like Evernote and RTM, and other apps that I would probably use more readily if I could switch to them more quickly. I'm curious to see how this balances out w/ memory consumption, though. I wonder if there will be an option to make an app a candidate for multitasking, or if there will be a separate gesture for “close” vs. “background.”

    Totally with you most consumers not caring about multitask, though. Every time I hear a radio ad for a cometing smart phone that say, “Our phone lets you run multiple apps at one time!” I can't help thinking, “If that's all ya got, Apple just won.”

  2. joel garry Says:

    If the problem is power, shouldn't the solution be: make it easier to get power?

  3. Michael Krupa Says:

    I use the Navigon application a lot (I get lost easily) and Pandora. So having multitasking is a huge win for me.

  4. Jake Says:

    The primary ones seem to fall into these buckets: audio, turn-by-turn directions, IM. Pretty much everyone I've heard chime in says something like “wouldn't mind”, “super nice”, etc. None of these phrases says “must-freaking-have” to me.

    Again, I suppose the right people to ask are the ones who bought Android phones or the 2-3 who bought Pres. I never get tired of poking fun at them.

    Would multitasking convert you to iPhone?

  5. Jake Says:

    I think that's coming in the next iPhone. By all accounts, the iPad has ridiculously long battery life. It's safe to assume this will be included in the new iPhones, esp. in light of the shoddy lifespans they have now.

    So, it looks like the solution will be: a) open this OS to developers, b) add power in later devices.

    FWIW, I don't notice a terrible loss in juice when running iPod and a game on mine. So, I think it's been doable for a long time.

  6. Jake Says:

    I also get lost easily, but are you using Navigon for walking directions :) Otherwise, in your use case, you're 1) driving, 2) getting directions and 3) doing something else on your phone . . .

    There's that audio one again. I wonder if Pandora personally lobbied for this.

  7. btaroli Says:

    In the navigation case, you're missing a huge issue. Say you get a phone call. If you're in a car, this is happening over bluetooth. When it happens, the phone app comes up and shuts down MobileNavigator. Great, but now I'm not getting my directions and suddenly I'm without guidance in an unfamiliar place AND I have a conversation to contend with. Yes, I have to reach over and re-open the navigator in order to restore function. Bad design.

    Better: A phone call comes in. Phone pops up, which is good because I'd like to glance and see who I'm about to talk to. Navigator continues to run and give me spoken instructions while I chat. If I need to see the app, I'm one double-press and a tap away from seeing it. Much nicer! Thanks, multitasking!

    As for other scenarios, just the daily grind of email, IM, twitter, and facebook… I'm often switching between apps to trace one thing or another down. And when I'm reading one thing and an IM comes in, I have to exit, launch IM, wait for it to open it's connections up and refresh, and then exit that and go back to what I was doing, again re-opening from scratch to a hopefully saved state.

    Who does that? Right, people without multitasking operating systems. You think that's cool? Go back to Windows 3.1 — which still had a better model. No, multitasking is GOOD. And we will drink it and enjoy. Even for those who don't realize they will benefit, that “aha!” moment will happen and they will be joyful.

  8. Jake Says:

    So, that use case should have prevented those apps from getting into the App Store, right? If the platform won't multitask, then how useful are turn-by-turn navigation apps?

    But fine, I see why, but never mind the fact that each year more states ban the use of phones in the car, and not all of them make allowances for GPS. Have fun convincing an officer you were fiddling with GPS and not texting, not that it matters.

    Maybe I don't do enough with my iPhone, but frankly, I think it's something I'd use about once a month. Again, this is a should-have feature, not a must-have. If it were a must-have, those of you who've jailbroken would not be in the super vast minority.

    The iPhone is cool without multitasking, and multitasking hasn't dulled the iPad. Multitasking is OVERRATED. Yes, I'm shouting, but you did first :) I agree it's good, but not a must-have for the iPhone.

    For the record, I'm betting it won't be very good anyway, at least not on older models.

    We already know (see my update) that it's not true multitasking. We already know it's not being backported to support older devices. What does that say for the 3 GS and latest iPod Touch? Probably a bit janky and a huge battery suck.

    Of course, I'll bet it works great on the iPad and the coming soon new iPhone . . .

  9. Michael Krupa Says:

    Busted. But I only multitask at red lights. Actually the killer feature in 4.0 is task switching. I hate having to go back to the home screen and switch between all my apps. So it's really task switching first and multitasking second. I agree that if multitasking was a huge issue that Apple would not have sold so many iPhones to date.

  10. the piXel Mind Says:

    1. All things that don't have multi tasking are not automatically equal. My toaster does not have multitasking either, and it is not the same as windows 3.1. :) [ I see various people online commenting about how apple has finally introduced something that win 3.1 had. ]

    2. The amazing thing is that they -knew- that in their product the feature would not be missed and were able to leave it on the cutting room floor. I suspect their success comes from decisions like this one.

    3. I think the pandora use case comes directly from an ATnT advert.

    4. also, agree on the task switching comment above.

  11. gooner Says:

    So finally multitasking (sort of) – not sure if i want it but with the iAd announcement (http://www.news.com.au/technology/multitasking-…) surely one cant draw the conclusion that Apple need it more than me so they can destroy my (already poor) iPhone experience with ads every 3 minutes. As one of the comments in news.com.au article points out – it looks like i'll be destroying my iPhone anytime now!!

  12. Mathew Says:

    I would tend to agree, although this post suggests there may also be other reasons – http://is.gd/bfEYC. I do think that power is the main reason for older iPhone models.

    The post details the android support for MT and outlines why the iPhone will likely adopt a similar implementation soon.

  13. ndog Says:

    I get the argument about it was not enough of a detriment to prevent people from buying the device but no, its still a limitation and one that should be fixed. By this measure, cut and paste – wasn't in the original, lot of people bought it without it, not necessary. Same for the ipad, bad wireless connectivity. By now every early adopter has heard of the problem yet sales continue, guess its not a “real” issue.

    For that matter, with all the sales Windows has made it must be the best OS out there. The argument is specious.

  14. Jake Says:

    Interesting read. I do recall hearing about fixed memory and the lack of a page file as reasons in the past, but obviously forgot them.

  15. Jake Says:

    Good point, the task switching feature will be nice, as will multitasking. Nice as in nice-to-have.

  16. Jake Says:

    Your second point is the golden one for me, at least from a PM perspective. Leaving out a popular feature b/c it's better for the overall product is *so* tough to do. It's definitely part of why Apple succeeds.

  17. Jake Says:

    I was thinking that iAds and sort-of-multitasking might be related too, and I've been gloating about that on Twitter. Have you jailbroken? Just wondering, since you say your experience is poor. Did you switch?

  18. Jake Says:

    I included copy/paste in the draft, but dropped it due to length. Copy/paste was a glaring gap that I covered here, but after they finally dropped it, I've rarely found myself using it. 1password is the big exception now.

    I wouldn't compare copy/paste and multitasking to the wifi issue on the iPad. That is a deal-breaking must-have. You can tell by Apple's quick response to that and the display issue (as Floyd describes in comments on his post).

    Dude, I didn't say iPhone OS was “best”, and I wouldn't argue that higher sales must indicate higher quality. Besides, comparing the two markets is sloppy.

    You're reaching :)

  19. btaroli Says:

    I don't think they particularly needed multitasking to do iAd, any more than apps needed it to do WebKit UI's to present “web browsers” without leaving the app. You'll note that Jobs mentioned the ads were done in HTML5, yes? I'm sure it's just poping up a Webkit display, taking over the window, but not leaving the app itself. The developer would just be enabling the classes to do so in their app to allow display of the ads, I suspect — no, I haven't read related docs in the SDK as yet.

  20. btaroli Says:

    I think the copy/paste thing is a perfect example of the other point raised about features cut from a product to make a deadline, etc. And, yes, people lived without it. But some use cases really got hurt by it's absence. I use copy/paste at least once an hour. Yeah, not kidding. But then I also use the iPhone as my primary IM, twitter, and facebook tool… which I guess isn't entirely common. So chalk me up as an exception. But copy/paste, while it's absence didn't make the phone's use impossible, it did make it painful and prevented many use cases.

    Similarly, using the phone wasn't impossible without task switching and multitasking — to get to the “need” versus “want” point — but not having them doesn't prevent certain use cases. Whether those use cases matter to everyone is debatable. To the extent that other devices indeed offer support for those uses cases and Apple wants those customers, well that's what drives them to develop features. Regardless of how you come down on “need” vs “want,” that the use cases exist for some population and can't be addressed without the feature… for them it would be a need. (shrug)

  21. Jake Says:

    Didn't think they “needed” it, but thought it might be bundled. To my point about complexity, now the code forks, to support OG/3G and 3GS+, either that or we'll get left in the dust, which is fine, as long as it means no ads.

    No one really knows for sure what iAds will be, but unsurprisingly, everyone fears the worst. I'm not too worried about them, but as with any advertising, would prefer to avoid.

  22. Jake Says:

    Leaving out multitasking and copy/paste represents a strong stand that most of us wouldn't be able to make, either b/c we aren't allowed to or aren't comfortable making.

    Obviously iPhone benefitted a) from being a really different and better smartphone compared to the options and b) from its design and functionality, even with glaring gaps.

    I think Apple must have a really good handle on what their 80 needs, even when the 20 is loud and cranky on blogs, Twitter, etc. Plus, they're strong (arrogant) enough to stick to their strategy until they're ready to drop features.

    It's a bit condescending, but it works.

  23. btaroli Says:

    It's funny you mention that actually. Because several of the conversations I had with folks about nav apps on the iPhone, and questions I received when I mentioned I'd started to use Mobilenavigator, circled around the idea: “but when you're use it as a GPS you can't do anything else, right?” In fact, Navigon, realizing this would be an issue, even did some iPod integration for music and audiobooks into their app. They make a point of how they support the receipt of phone calls while in navigation and save enough state so that /when/ you relaunch the app it will remember what route it was on and resume. Not if. When.

    Of course, whether this is will be an issue really gets down to whether you find the apps that would benefit from it being useful to you. If not, then it makes perfect sense that there would be no pain from trying to use them and thus a desire for an OS feature to make the experience a positive one. I get that. As such, though, understanding what different people consider to be needs versus mere wants has a lot to do with how they utilize their devices… and identifying potential use cases they avoid sharing because they realize they are not practically possible.

    As for how big the population of jailbreakers is, I've really no clue about that. I /do/ know that the announcements from Cydia regarding how many SHSH'es get cached was well into the millions. Given how many phones have been sold, that is certainly less than 10%.

    As for true multitasking, I don't know that I'm hung up on needing it to be that. After hearing and reading about the approach they took, I see this as a reasonable compromise between the desire/need for the functionality that would be provided via true multitasking, delivered in a way that balances against performance and power issues that might result. Time will tell how well Apple measured the true scope of the functionality the API provides… though I must say I'm really looking forward to it.

    And, in many ways, this is the same sort of compromise they made with Push Notifications. Does it seem a rather kludgy implementation to resolve what might seem to be a very simple issue? (letting multiple apps run at once) Did it extend the usefulness of applications that we wanted to run in the background and improve battery life over jailbreak solutions like Backgrounder (which basically /does/ let multiple apps continue to run, in true multitasking fashion, so long as they fit in available memory)? Absolutely.

    But as with all compromises, easing the pressure in one area (Push Notification) lead to the exposure of other issues, such as app navigation (soon to be eased by Task Switching) and notification handling (those dreaded pop-ups, still unresolved). Will there ever be perfection? No, probably not. But lets just say that Apple doesn't have the market cornered on having things that need improvement in it's mobile OS. I've had my hands on a few Android devices. Say what you will about Apple's issues, but I was very glad to get those things out of my hands after using them for a day or two. The UI's were horrible!

    Well, by know we're all aware that multitasking (even task switching) isn't going to work at all on older models. Just goes back to the 3GS and IPTg3. I've got a 3G I'm running 4.0 on as well and can confirm this. I also notice that the general UI seems more sluggish on the 3G than on the 3GS, but this is still beta too. :D

    Honestly, I don't expect any particular battery magic out of the next iPhone. They still only have so much space to deal with. If anything, I suspect the new iPhone will probably get the same CPU (well, really POC) as the iPad. Maybe other tweaks too, but nothing earth shattering… unless the G4 also brings 4G (or a new carrier). ;) Time will tell. But these OS changes are clearly NOT about hardware love for one device or another, or the iPad would have launched with it. You don't release you're shiny new OS on a device you aren't proud to have it run on. And, sure, there are bound to be OS features for UI widgets that only work on the bigger iPod screen… oh sorry, iPad. I keep confusing the two. ;)

    [ed note: I only capitalized for emphasis, not shouting... I could have just called you up to shout. LOL]

  24. Jake Says:

    Your Android comment interests me, since I'll be getting a Droid from Google before I|O.

    The iPad's speed is one of the things I noticed first, so if the next iPhone had an A4 variant, that would be a very intriguing feature for me. If you believe the rumors, Verizon will come on board later in the year.

    It's going to take a compelling feature for me to take 4.0 on my OG iPhone; I would have taken it for multitasking, since I consider that a should-have, but now . . . .

    I recently shelled out the $200 replacement cost, knowing full well this year might bring a better version. I just couldn't wait; you can read about my dilemma in January's archive if you want.

    Anyway, as I say in reply below, I respect Apple's PM stance, even if it doesn't match up with what I want :)

  25. Floyd Says:

    Multi-tasking on the iPad/iPhone is, at best, a “nice to have” for me…I've already come up on the winning side of the 80/20 split.

  26. Jake Says:

    Glad someone agrees with my “nice to have” tag for this :)

  27. Jake Says:

    Glad someone agrees with my “nice to have” tag for this :)

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