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Why the iPad’s lack of multitasking is a GOOD thing

Apple iPad

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, you’ll know that last week Apple announced the iPad, its new tablet device. Reactions have been a mixed bag, and a storm of discussion has swept through the blogosphere about various features the iPad should or shouldn’t have had.

One of the main complaints so far has been the iPad’s lack of multitasking. (To be precise, multitasking is a bit of a misnomer here; the iPhone OS has multitasking. What people really mean is only allowing one app at a time to run.)

Many seem to almost blindly assume that running only one app at a time is a Very Bad Thing, perhaps because limiting features tends to get negative reactions by default.

We thought it was worth pointing out that not everything about running one app at a time is bad. In fact, in many ways it’s quite the opposite if you think about it. There are actually quite a few upsides to the “one app at a time” approach that Apple has taken:

  • Ease of development: You could argue that the lack of multitasking is limiting developers. But it is also enabling them. Developers can work on and test their apps with the safe assumption that they will have access to a certain amount of RAM and CPU. This is better for developers, because they know their app can take full advantage of the device and won’t have to compete for resources with other apps. We’ve seen this sentiment expressed by some iPhone game developers, and it actually makes sense. It mimics, in a way, the way game consoles work: dedicate system resources to one app at a time.
  • Consistent app performance: Not having apps compete for device resources also means that apps are more likely to perform well and consistently, which makes for a better user experience.
  • A more stable platform: The more processes from various developers that are running in the background at the same time, the more likely something is to crash and cause problems. Only running one app at a time also minimizes the risk of inter-application problems. Once again, a win for the user experience.
  • Less battery drain: The only credible argument for running more than one app at a time is for running background processes, but on top of the reasons we have already listed, having a bunch of apps and processes working in the background would limit battery life significantly.
  • These are “one app at a time” devices: The iPhone OS devices (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch) are small and focus is meant to be on one app at a time anyway. The iPad is the biggest and still only has a nine-inch screen, not something you want to clutter with more than one app at a time. As long as switching between apps is fast, and it is, running one app at a time shouldn’t be a problem.

We may be playing Devil’s Advocate a bit here, but it’s worth taking a step back and really think about this. Traditional wisdom isn’t always right, and let’s face it, the iPad isn’t meant as a replacement for your desktop computer, or even your laptop. So perhaps we shouldn’t judge it like one.

All of the reasons we listed above have one thing in common. They all add to the user experience, not by adding more features or bling, but by limiting the risk of the user being inconvenienced or interrupted. Perhaps Apple’s reason for not including multitasking is as simple as wanting to conserve battery power, but there’s also a good chance that it’s a tradeoff to improve the user experience, for the very reasons we listed in this article.

An alternative to multitasking. If only allowing one application at a time to run is a decision that Apple has decided to stand by in the long run, most likely they will do something (hopefully clever) to compensate for this. Perhaps they will extend the current notification functionality and make it more powerful and flexible for apps to use.

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