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.

17 comments

  1. I like the idea of the iPad as an eBook reader, providing Apple can eventually wrestle the publishers into selling their books in the $1-$5 range. The iPod Touch is too small to read lengthy texts on, and I just can’t concentrate on a book on a laptop. (Not to mention the uncomfortable form factor for reading that laptops have.)

  2. I’m looking forward to Pingdoms next great article in the same series: Why being hit in the head multiple times is a GOOD thing.

  3. It would be nice if I could have music playing while reading. Kindle does this. (Eats battery life).

    This can be done by adding that feature to the reading App instead of running both reading App and Music Player App.

  4. 1-5$ books? Good luck… Personally I do think 5$ is perfect for a ebook that’s avail in paperback but even that publishers aren’t likely to go with let alone lower.
    What I’d love to see is a way for bookstores to hive you a code on each physical book purchase so you can have the ebook version free after say 30 days (code becomes dormant if you return your purchase book).

  5. I have a G1 Android phone, frankly, background is everything, I could live with having a web browser for the UI, but background apps like Locale (Locale lets me trigger events based on anything the phone can detect, I use is mostly to adjust ringer volume for when I am at home and probably sleeping or at my work) are far too handy.

  6. Thank you guys for telling it like it is. I have not understood the “no multitasking” complaints at all since the iPad was announced, and your article describes exactly the reasons why. Advanced users like Ronald are the exception, not the rule, and fortunately for them there are alternatives like Android that will let them do what they want. While I’d personally like to be able to run apps like Pastebot and TextExpander in the background (I have no desire to listen to Pandora or any other Internet radio whatsoever, and that’s all most people can seem to come up with for why they want multitasking on the iDevices), I’m perfectly happy with the stability and speed of my 3GS and am happy I can reasonably expect the same or better performance from the iPad.

  7. Neither cynical, nor hysterical is one of the characteristics of this blog here on Royal Pingdom. Wise and free of mass thoughts.
    Interesting article, as always. Myths are to be fought!
    Concerning this iPad, no webcam and a 1gHz processor seem the most bothering. OK (or not?) HTML5 will out-stand Flash, but till seems a tough sacrifice. Not to mention Apple’s own OS, Apple’s own this, own that, which remains a very little universal approach.
    I’d say, wait and have better, buy a product, not a name, wear and forget fashion!

  8. iPad is the worst of all worlds: it can’t replace my phone or my notebook, so it’s something more that I would need to carry.

    It’s too heavy (compared to Kindle) and have a very short battery life (10h instead of 2 weeks? it’s a joke).

    But I’m sure it will be a huge commercial success, just because it has a small fruit bite.

  9. Jeez, Yet another Steve Jobs is a visionary post about the itampon. Did you guys at least get paid to pimp Apple’s latest disappointment?

  10. One use that I’ve thought would be very useful for this iPad would be for accessing Citrix XenApp while on the move.

    I don’t get people going on that they want this iPad as a eBook reader? There’s simply no contest with an e-ink display when it comes to reading books. I would very much prefer to read an e-ink display for long texts (ie books) not a eye-straining lit-up display. e-ink does really look just like paper, read like paper. Very natural.

    The only bummer about the device is the price for me but then an Android & ARM powered tablet have been in the works…Apple just beat them to the punch by coming out with the iPad first.

  11. So, you’re saying that the iPad NEEDS to not have multitasking, because it fails in the processing department? Because, yet again, Apple is selling you less for more.

  12. No way. This is supposed to be a computer. I want to be able to copy files (ZERO USB ports, closed system), and multitask — run Notepad, have stickies open, FTP to my server, and open multiple web pages simultaneously.

    I can do all of the above on OSX, which makes OSX by far the best Apple product. Can’t do this on iPhone, iPad, iPod. This, along with the fact that I can only run OSX on an Mac, will slowly kill Apple. Open up your OS, open up your iPhone, iPad, iPod file system, and give me multitasking. Apple’s competitors are beating them to the punch.

  13. I don’t get the anti-Apple comments here (or anywhere, for that matter). It’s one thing to debate the topic – multitasking vs no, but the childish “how much are you getting paid” crap is pointless. Do you all work for MS and Goog? Or are you just 35-yr-old trolls who never managed to escape mom’s basement?

    C’mon guys, if you don’t like Apple, don’t buy their products. But don’t whine here. Apple creates some good stuff and it’s relevant for pingdom to discuss the company and products.

  14. How about I propose something even better, an iRock? It does allow you to run ZERO apps at a time. It has its upsides, though.
    Ease of development: your app doesn’t need to do anything, because it will not be run anyway.
    Consistent app performance: no performance = SAME performance!
    A more stable platform: it is made out of rock, how can you go more stable than that?
    Zero battery drain: It doesn’t even have a battery, in fact.
    These are “one app at a time” devices: the iWood device is only meant to run zero apps, so iRock will be able to do that too!

    Seriously, though, let the user decide. If you are running too many apps and it has slowed down your device, you just exit some of them. This is what is always done with PC.

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