Monday, 8 February 2010

Like men, iPhones supposedly can't multitask. Who cares.

Beware the echo chamber of the blogosphere. If you listen to too many geek-blogs, you might get a skewed perspective and end up spending a fortune on ads with indecipherable headlines like "multi-multitasking" .

Nokia currently has an ad running with the headline "multi-multitasking," and an extremely busy screenshot of many windows open and crammed into a small mobile phone display. At the tiny size of these windows, any text is rendered unreadably small, and thus the contents of these windows are incomprehensible.

The term "multi-multistasking" is not the most user friendly, and the accompanying image serves to illustrate all of the problems associated with enabling multiple applications to run concurrently in a compact handheld device.

Since this image and headline reveal such an evident shortcoming in the product category, it may seem like an odd approach for Nokia's marketing bods to take. One might wonder why they don't instead focus on some of the advantages of smart phones. The explanation lies in their paranoid desire to differentiate themselves from Apple's iPhone, combined with a bad habit of spending excessive time reading geek blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget, (full disclosure: I confessed to being guilty of this same addiction).

As any geek will tell you - the iPhone's achilles heel is its inability to multitask. The argument goes that whereas other devices let you run as many apps as you like, with iPhone, Apple restricts you to one app at a time, and this is a problem. This argument is erroneous on three counts: 1. the iPhone does support multitasking, it just doesn't allow third party apps to run in the background; 2. this is a deliberate design decision on Apple's part - they chose to disable it, rather than struggling to enable it; and most important of all 3. if this is such a shortcoming, why is the iPhone so insanely popular and why are all the other handset manufacturers perpetually trying to ape it?

The fact that the iPhone does not support background applications is not a shortcoming, it is a deliberate design decision. Apple judges the improvements in battery life, performance and user experience (associated with restricting background processes) to be of greater value to the majority of users than the ability to run multiple third party applications at once. Of course, they make an exception to this rule for certain of their own key applications: such as the Phone app (you need calls to come through when you're in a different app) and the iPod app (you want to be able to listen to music regardless of whatever else you're doing). And the result is a phone that is perfect for the vast majority of users - and the tiny subset who would prefer shorter battery life, poor performance and multi-multitasking are free to go buy a Nokia... or better still to jailbreak their iPhone and "multi-multitask" to their heart's content.

Nokia are not the first to mistake Apple's design decision for a weakness. When Palm launched the Palm Pre, they put multitasking at the heart of their marketing campaign. 12 months later, the product is all but forgotten. Interestingly, the one company that can always be relied upon to faithfully copy Apple's ideas is at it again. The word is that Microsoft are removing the ability to run applications in the background from Windows Mobile 7.


  1. graham, thanks for pointing this out. i've been wondering about the necessity of multitasking since the ipad introduction. lack of camera and other features aside, no multitasking is one of the major criticism pointed out about the ipad. on the other hand, nearly every journalist who was able to play with the device after the keynote pointed out how incredibly fast it is (as far as opening applications is concerned). now, if changing between ipad apps (thus, closing one and opening another) really feels as instantaneously as described - where actually is the difference between switching between simultaneously running apps and opening / closing them? at least as far as the user experience is concerned? most info apps will still keep you updated with notifications, and most tasks an iphone or ipad is used for will not really require multitasking. you're not going to download large files, you're not going to convert video on those devices, anyway.

  2. Switching back and for between the web and apps like pages or keynote is going be very inelegant.

    At this point, I'd settle being able to run just two third party apps. Is that too much to ask?

  3. I know the techies care about multi-tasking, but i just couldn't give a crap. I just find it confusing. The only thing I might want is to be able to listen to radio (like AOL Radio) instead of my ipod songs.