Apple to restrict iPhone, iPad multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0

Thursday's new OS roll-out to add Apple-controlled 'intelligent multitasking,' say experts

If Apple announces multitasking for its iPhone and iPad tomorrow, it will be a limited version that the company controls, allowing some applications to run in the background but denying others, experts said today.

On Thursday, Apple will roll out iPhone OS 4.0 in a presentation to reporters and analysts at its Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. Most industry watchers expect that Apple will add multitasking -- the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously -- to the mobile operating system.

[Seth Weintraub will be liveblogging the iPhone 4.0 announcements for Computerworld starting from 1 p.m. Eastern]

"The iPhone OS has push notification, but that's not the same," said Aaron Vronko, the CEO of Rapid Repair, a company that services and supplies parts for do-it-yourself iPod, iPhone and iPad repairs. Vronko was referring to the half-hearted form of multitasking Apple added to iPhone OS 3.0 in March 2009. In push notification, the iPhone pings Apple's servers to see if there are, for example, new messages waiting for an instant message client. Push consumes some battery power, but much less than true multi-app processing, Apple claimed at the time.

"They'll do what I call 'intelligent multitasking'," said Vronko. By his definition, "intelligent multitasking" would set up Apple as the gatekeeper -- a function it already fills when it comes to what software is allowed on the iPhone and iPad -- and allow it to approve or deny specific programs the right to run in the background.

"That makes the most sense, because it lets Apple control the user experience and performance," Vronko added, referring to multitasking's strain on the slower processors in mobile devices and its drain on their batteries. "It would let them be careful how they let apps multitask."

Some software, like games, would not be allowed to truly multitask. "There's no reason for a game to multitask," Vronko argued. Instead, developers might be encouraged to automatically suspend their programs when a user switches to another, letting them pick up where they left off. Other software, such as instant messaging clients, music-streaming programs, or applications to track Twitter feeds or Facebook pages, would be given multitasking carte blanche, and be allowed to continue to run in the background.

Vronko based his opinion on the hardware inside the iPad, which he disassembled last Saturday to analyze its construction and components. The single-core processor that powers the tablet -- Vronko believes it's an Apple-specific design of the ARM Cortex-A9 -- and the 256MB of system memory, the same sported by the iPhone 3GS, makes full-fledged multitasking difficult, if not impossible, he said.

"That's not a whole lot of memory, [so] I don't think we'll see a general multitasking," Vronko said. "But if they use an intelligent multitasking model and limit its scope, the [iPad] hardware can certainly do it."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, also believes Apple won't take a whole-hog approach. "I don't think they'll offer full multitasking, but they'll get rid of all or most of the impediments that make you wish you had multitasking," he said in an interview earlier this week.

Like Vronko, Gottheil assumes that Apple will allow some applications to do true multitasking, but deny the right to most others. But Gottheil's reasoning was different. "Full multitasking would threaten Apple's desire to control both the user experience and the security of the iPhone," he said, ticking off the company's well-known -- some would say overenthusiastic -- penchant for guarding what goes on the iPhone, and now, the iPad.

Even if Apple doesn't deliver some form of multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0 tomorrow, Vronko believes that the next version of the iPhone will sport a faster processor. "Oh, they'll definitely use an A4," he said, talking about the system-on-a-chip, or SOC, in the iPad. "If it's not the exact same chip, it will be a derivative. They've made a huge investment in the A4."

The iPad's newer, faster processor doubles the tablet's speed over the iPhone 3GS, which relies on an older ARM Cortex-A8 CPU design.

Although both Vronko and Gottheil anticipate that Apple will add multitasking to the iPhone OS, the former won't be surprised if the company marches to a different drummer tomorrow. "But one wonders how long Apple will resist some of the flow of technology," Vronko said.

Computerworld's Seth Weintraub will be live blogging Apple's iPhone 4.0 announcement tomorrow. Additional news coverage will follow.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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