Apple iOS 4 vs. Android Multitasking: Which Approach Is Better for Users?

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Multitasking takes center stage with the debut of Apple's iOS 4 (and iPhone 4) this week, but the big question is how this long-awaited, fairly basic feature stacks up against Android's approach--especially given how many people are debating whether Apple is delivering true multitasking at all.

I'm not a programmer--and chances are, neither are you. So let's leave aside the technical discussion of whether iOS 4's multitasking is just that. Instead, let's consider the user's perspective. What are the differences between the two methods of accessing apps? And which approach does more for the nontechnical consumers who are flocking to the latest smartphones?

As it turns out, the way Apple tackles multitasking is fundamentally different from how Google handles the job--and that difference speaks volumes about Apple's mature interface polish as opposed to Google's work-in-progress, developer-optimized approach.

iOS 4 Multitasking

With iOS 4, by default, Apple allows users to see all apps that remain open, whether those apps are in a suspended or live state. You double-tap on the home button to call up the multitasking bar, which appears at the bottom of the menu screen just up from the home button. The bar shows four icons at a time; you can swipe all the way to the left to get shortcut controls for the iPod music player.

iOS 4 multitasking
The icons for your most recently opened apps start at the left; you flick your finger horizontally to scroll through the other icons (the one farthest right being the app you opened the earliest).

The apps that will run in the background are typically those that have actions that must be performed in the background, such as navigation, music streaming, or VoIP (but surprisingly, not instant messaging apps); for example, your GPS app could continue to track your progress and give you directions regardless of whether you're on the phone, listening to audio, or performing some other task.

Not all apps in Apple's world are allowed to run that way, though; most, in fact, will run suspended. If an app supports the suspension capability, it will be able to resume action where you left off.

Apple says that iOS 4 keeps track of which apps have been used more recently than others, and which ones take up more memory than others. Apps will be purged from the suspended state if the phone runs out of memory. Apple won't say how much memory is involved, but spokespeople have confirmed that the memory is dedicated system memory, and has nothing to do with the available storage space on the device.

With no app-management tool, users have to trust iOS 4 to make the correct decisions about what's available via multitasking. If you want to close an app out of memory, however, all you do is press and hold the app's icon, and then click the red circle with a dash--Apple's visual representation of a delete symbol.

Android Multitasking

Contrast that method with the Google Android multitasking approach, which is convoluted and engineering-focused. On the Android platform, you can view only the six most recently opened apps. To access the multitasking switcher, you have to tap and hold the home button (or equivalent), and then select the app you want. The multitasking switcher appears in the middle of the screen, which typically means moving your fingers up a bit from the navigation buttons.

Android does keep other apps running in the background, not just in a suspended state as iOS 4 does. For example, a Web page might continue drawing even after you have left the browser to do so something else. But you won't see obvious evidence of this when you activate the multitasking switcher; you just see the six icons of the most recently used apps.

In the Android environment, by default, the only way to see all of the apps running at any given time is to dig down by selecting Settings, Applications, Manage applications. Once there, you must then scroll down to Controls and press Force stop to close the app. The stats you scroll through for any given app are very detailed and developer-friendly--but they do not provide concise and clear information that's digestible for the non-coder audience that Android aspires to attract.

Instead, an Android user must download an app manager or app killer, such as Advanced Task Killer, in order to see which apps are open at a glance, and to close them easily. The new Motorola Droid X, which comes with Task Killer, is thus far the only Android phone we've seen to have such an app preinstalled.

However, even if more Android phones were to include a preinstalled app manager, I'd posit that the very need for a separate app is a failure of the Android operating system. For something as basic as identifying which apps are open--and closing any of those apps--users should not have to figure the process out independently of the phone's core environment.

Yes, my tech-savvy colleagues and I won't hesitate to download a free app (or three) and use it to manage all of our other apps. We know to do so, and we research the reasons why we should do so. But, for the mainstream consumers Android has in its sights--the consumers who have run to Apple with head-over-heels enthusiasm--Android needs to take better charge of its own app management, in an integrated and cohesive fashion.

Much the way Apple has done.

Challenges Ahead

That said, Apple's approach has its weaknesses. Foremost among them is the fact that app developers must first update their apps to support iOS 4 and multitasking (or fast app switching, as some app developers are calling the suspension feature). That means that not all apps will support the feature during these early days of the new operating system, even though iOS 4 will hold all apps in “suspended” space. And even though iOS 4 is trying to manage those apps, it isn't doing so precisely: On an iPhone 3GS running iOS 4, I've encountered a game app, Annie's Wildshot from Temco, that delivered a message saying that it detected low memory. (The game is not iOS 4-tested, whatever that may or may not mean here.) This message--which I had never seen before--appeared when I had 28 apps showing in the multitasking bar. Clearly, even if users can't see the impact, suspended and multitasking apps are utilizing the phone's resources.

Another issue for Apple is that we can't yet fully gauge its support of multitasking. At this writing, painfully few apps in the App Store have been updated to support iOS 4 and multitasking or fast app switching (consult this Google search for easy reference, since Apple hasn't provided a way to see this info in iTunes). And those apps that have updated are not even consistently referring to what they support in the iOS 4 environment. (Does the app remain live or suspended? Is it multitasking or app switching?) Given the early evidence, developers are not being held to a specific nomenclature for multitasking support--which only confuses things further for consumers.

Android may be able to work more seamlessly in the background with some apps and notifications--this is something that I need to play with more, over time, to fully understand vis-à-vis how iOS 4 handles the same apps. Ditto for understanding the long-term impact of active multitasking on battery life, on both platforms.

And in spite of its different approach, iOS 4 might be capable of working comparably to Android, but the jury will remain out until we can see more apps that are truly designed to take advantage of the new OS.

The bottom line is that, in its visual implementation, Apple's handling of multitasking is more approachable and elegant. Android's multitasking has the advantage of working with all apps, but the way it's implemented lacks grace and vision.

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