Why the iPhone doesn't need multitasking

Competitors -- not iPhone users -- sound the alarms about the iPhone's lack of true multitasking. That should tell you something

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True multitasking introduces some additional issues that Apple, or iPhone users will have to contend with:

  • Battery life. Battery life is often cited by Apple as one of the reasons multitasking hasn't been allowed thus far. The more apps that are running at the same time, the faster the battery power will be consumed.
  • Performance. Multitasking is still limited by the processing power and memory available to the system. Opening two or three applications on a Windows PC may work fine, but if you open 10 applications, you will probably grind your system to a virtual halt. Running multiple applications simultaneously bogs the iPhone down and could lead to frustrating performance.
  • Management. As I stated previously, you can only really see one app at a time on the iPhone. With multitasking, you might have four or five apps running in the background -- eating up battery life and impacting performance -- and you may forget about them. The next-generation iPhone OS needs to include some sort of interface or function that shows which apps are active so you can manage them properly.
  • Security. The iPhone OS closes the current app when you switch back to the main screen or accept an incoming call. This security model ensures that there are no apps running in the background, to ensure that malicious apps can't be used to compromise the iPhone, steal data, or spread malware. As has been seen with jailbroken iPhones, enabling multitasking opens the platform to potential malware attacks.

While these are concerns, it is hard to ignore the fact that all competing smartphone platforms already include multitasking and that many focus on that capability as a competitive differentiator when comparing against the iPhone.

I am not suggesting that Apple's current pseudo-multitasking model is perfect, but I am pointing out that true multitasking is not without its issues, and that there are other potential solutions for a device like the iPhone which achieve the same results -- or close enough at least -- without introducing the concerns that come with multitasking.

Multitasking -- true multitasking -- is in fact absent from the current iPhone OS. But it seems like it is more of an issue from a marketing perspective than an actual concern of iPhone users. If, and when, Apple does introduce true multitasking in the iPhone OS, what will Apple competitors have to attack in their commercials?

The launch of the iPad changes the equation entirely as well. Because the iPad is built on the iPhone OS, and it has a significantly larger display to work with, users will expect to be able to open multiple apps and cascade or tile them to switch back and forth just as they are used to on desktop and notebook computers today.

While the value of multitasking on the iPhone itself may still be questionable, it would be a serious handicap to the iPad -- even bigger than the inability to view Adobe Flash. Particularly when considering the potential business use of the iPad, multitasking becomes a critical element.

Multitasking is always at the top of the iPhone OS rumor list, though, so it may be premature to get too excited just yet.

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Tony Bradley is a writer for PC World, an InfoWorld affiliate, and co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies. He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW. You can follow him on his Facebook page, or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com.

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