iOS 4.0 Multitasking Has Challenge Ahead

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One of the most highly anticipated features of iOS 4 is its multitasking. But on day one, this feature is a mixed bag, and appears to be best left to Apple's own core apps--as opposed to third-party apps--which largely defeats the purpose of the feature.

The interface for multitasking is slick and convenient, especially for one-handed phone operation. Double-press the Home button to activate the multitasking bar; the rest of the screen subtly moves up and becomes hidden behind a translucent screen. Then, simply flick horizontally to find the app you want, and tap its icon to return to that app. The apps appear in the multitasking bar in the order you last used them; for example, the most recently-used app moves to the front of the line at left, bumping everything else to the right.

Apps written to take advantage of multitasking have two states: running and suspended. iOS 4 tries to keep as many eligible apps running as it can hold in memory at one time; the other apps remain suspended (until purged by iOS 4 or closed by the user). If the app is written to take advantage of this new feature, it will pick up precisely where you left off.

Lack of Apps

iOS 4's multitasking interface certainly works smoothly, just as it did when I first tried multitasking with a demo unit at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. But at WWDC, I was limited mostly to bundled Apple apps, not the bevy of apps I know and love from my own iPhone. Now, on iOS 4 launch day, it turns out that Apple's own apps, again, are currently the best candidates for multitasking. As of this writing, relatively few apps are iOS 4-tested, and of those, not all are optimized to take advantage of the multitasking.

A Google search reveals that, as of this writing, about 225 apps are "iOS 4 tested," a pittance considering the more than 200,000 apps in Apple's App Store (but not surprising given that Apple only began approving iOS 4 apps last week). But when I changed that same Google search to include the term "multitasking", and only seven results popped up today, including Pandora Radio (which indeed continued to play as I used other apps, and which resumed where I left off after I used a game app that needed audio), ESPN ScoreCenter (which continued seamlessly in the background), and How to Cook Everything (popped me back where I left off, without having to re-open the app).

Now, presumably, in these early days, app developers will be eager to shout from the rooftops if their app supports multitasking. And so a Google Search such as the one above would be a good way to find said apps. But even if you figure Google hasn't indexed all of the relevant iTunes results yet (and it's Google or bust, since iTunes doesn't offer any way of separating out iOS 4-tested apps, let alone isolate iOS 4 apps that support multitasking), the idea that there are still so few multitasking-enabled apps is disheartening.

The minimal number of apps at launch calls into sharp focus the problem with forcing developers to retool apps to take advantage of the software-based multitasking abilities of iOS 4. Will these apps all get an update, eventually? Or will some developers not even bother, for whatever the reason? Did developers not include multitasking support on iOS 4-tested apps because they didn't have enough time to code it in, or did they not perceive a value in their apps?

These are the questions that are left to linger, and even confuse, consumers.

Given that not all apps that say "iOS 4-tested" or are "iOS-optimized" indeed support multitasking--and that Apple hasn't come up with a clear delineation for this--it will be a challenge for consumers, who understand the basic premise of multitasking from computer use, to grasp exactly how the iPhone multitasking experience works compared with its Android-based competition.

The situation kind of reminds me of the USB 2.0 debacle when that spec first launched. Loose wording in the spec allowed companies to say a product supported USB 2.0, without achieving the promised higher speed of USB 2.0. The problem here is, how will consumers know an iOS 4 app supports multitasking unless the developer specifies this separately? And, when using an app, will consumers attribute its behavior to how Apple approached iOS 4 multitasking, or to the app's implementation of it (or lack of support thereof)? Time will tell.

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