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Why Multitasking Is a Big Deal for the iPad

Charles Moore - 2010.03.22 - Tip Jar

There's long been grumbling about the iPhone OS's lack of multitasking capability, especially its suitability as a serious business smartphone. However, the clamor has cranked up by several magnitudes of intensity since the iPad announcement.

Multitasking on the Mac

My own take is that going back to working without multitasking would be too much like reverting to the early Mac OS - before MultiFinder was introduced for System 5.

Say what?

If you've been around the Mac long enough, you'll recall that the original Mac OS only supported running one application at a time. It's not a limitation one remembers with fond nostalgia, although in the days when one ran off a 400K floppy disk that included the OS as well one or more applications running on machines with only 128 KB or 512 KB of RAM, there wasn't much practical potential for multitasking.

The closest we came was when Mac OS pioneer Andy Hertzfeld developed a utility called Switcher in 1985 that facilitated pausing one running application while you launched another one.

Macintosh PlusHowever, with the release of the 1 MB (upgradable to 4 MB) Mac Plus in 1986, which introduced 800K floppies and the availability of peripheral SCSI hard drives, much potential was opened up. The MultiFinder extension to System 5 that came along in August 1987 added the capability to cooperatively multitask several applications at once.

I remember what a welcome revelation it was when I first activated MultiFinder on my Mac Plus under System 6. I had a massive (at least physically) 20 MB SCSI hard drive, and with 2.5 MB of RAM I could run and switch back and forth between the two applications I used most in those days - Microsoft Word and HyperCard - without quitting and restarting the programs each time by clicking a small button in the menu bar.

With the introduction of System 7 and continuing through Mac OS 9, enhanced and streamlined MultiFinder cooperative multitasking that no longer require manually switching between apps was integrated into the Mac OS. This was eventually superseded by full-fledged preemptive multitasking in Unix-based Mac OS X.

A lot of us are keeping our fingers crossed that history will repeat itself with the iPhone (and soon iPad) OS.

Multitasking on the iPhone

To be fair, the iPhone OS is not as totally bereft of multitasking capability as pre-MultiFinder System 5 and earlier were, since it does support multiple background processes, but that facility is limited to the system's built-in features and doesn't support third-party applications. Ergo, you can listen to music, do email, and download stuff from iTunes simultaneously, which technically qualifies as multitasking, but this is not adequate for serious computing.

Arguably, leaving true multitasking out of the iPhone made considerable sense, since its 76 MB of RAM and tiny display are hardly conducive to tiling multiple app windows and such. Also, adding true multitasking would come at a cost of diminished battery life, performance slowdowns with multiple apps competing for processor power and memory, need for enhanced app management complexity, and increased security vulnerabilities.

Why the iPad Needs Multitasking

However, basing the iPad on the iPhone OS alters the equation as regards multitasking radically. The tablet's substantially larger display will be large enough to tile or cascade multiple open app windows and switch back and forth among them as we're accustomed to doing with desktop and notebook operating system. The inability to do so represents a serious handicap, especially for serious users who would relish the iPad's lithe form factor but need to be able to work with multiple apps at the same time.

Trying to do real work on an iPad without multitasking would be too much like regressing to pre-MultiFinder days on the Mac.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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