Apple iPhone getting multitasking this summer?

Apple will deliver multitasking to iPhone 4.0 this summer, according to a prominent Apple blog. We've heard that rumor before. On the other hand, it has to be true sometime.

Apple will introduce "a multitasking solution through the handset's 4.0 software update that will finally allow several third-party apps to run concurrently and in the backround," according to the blog AppleInsider ("Apple's iPhone 4.0 software to deliver multitasking support.")

Right now, only Apple's apps multitask in the background. So you can listen to music on the iPod, and Mail continues pulling down messages, even when you're doing other things. But third-party apps can't run in the background, unless you jailbreak your iPhone.

Apple has avoided supporting multitasking on the iPhone, probably because it's risky. Done wrong, it would drain the battery rapidly -- and the iPhone battery is already notoriously scant. Badly done multitasking would slow down the iPhone, as too many open apps compete for computing power. And it would lead to crashes.

But those aren't the only risks. AppleInsider provides a good roundup of the issues. Multitasking would make it easier for malefactors to install malware, hiding viruses, spyware, and other treacherous software as background processes. And multitasking would be particularly hard on games, which require fast, predictable responsiveness, and which have been a strong selling point for the iPhone.

Also, how would you develop a friendly user interface for managing multitasking apps, AppleInsider asks? AppleInsider says:

The iPhone OS is intended to create mobile devices that are easy to use, not just small versions of the complex PC model of the 1990s. Apple mocked the unfriendly and complex Task Manager of Windows Mobile at the launch of iPhone 2.0. Today's Android users similarly find themselves diddling with resource and memory management to optimize battery life and performance.

Existing background-capable apps in iPhone 3.x paint a bar across the top of the screen that allows the user to return to that background app (such as a phone call, voice memo, or Nike+ session) when finished with their secondary foreground app. But that solution isn't going to scale to multiple apps all running at once.

Gizmodo speculates that the multitasking interface will look a lot like Exposé, a multi-window view that runs on the Mac desktop and other smartphones. ("iPhone 4.0 Firmware to Bring Multitasking This Summer?")

Michael Oh, president of Boston-based Apple reseller Tech Superpowers, told CRN that Apple needs multitasking to avoid the appearance of being left behind by competitors. ("Report: Apple To Add Multi-Tasking In iPhone 4.0")

"Apple doesn't really need multitasking for the iPhone to be competitive, but the perception is that competitors are going to be pushing multitasking as a feature," said Oh. "The time is about right for Apple to cave on this -- unless there is radically new hardware, the iPhone feels like it is losing ground and staying still," says Michael Oh.

I disagree. Apple doesn't market that way. It doesn't add features just because competitors have them. Apple will add multitasking to the iPhone when it thinks it's got multitasking right. If they were willing to go a long time without cut-and-paste, they won't cave on this issue.

CRN says:

Commenters on greeted the rumors with lukewarm enthusiasm. "Never missed multitasking, and probably won't use it when it arrives," wrote one forum poster.

On the other hand, Rick Broida, writing at, is "excited" about the possibility of multitasking. He says, "And it's about damn time!" ("Rumor: Multitasking coming to iPhone OS 4.0").

Me, I'm somewhere between that forum poster and Rick. I'm not thrilled to get multitasking. I love my iPhone even without it.

I'm not enthusiastic about running messaging apps in the background. People can already reach me through at least five channels on the iPhone: E-mail, text messaging, Twitter direct messages, Facebook messages, and of course by making a phone call. AIM, Google Talk, and Skype running in the background won't make my life better.

On the other hand, I can see the usefulness. Pandora and other streaming-audio apps could benefit a great deal from running in the background.

Likewise, apps that synchronize to content elsewhere, such as the Things task manager or Evernote note-taking software, would benefit from being able to do their synching in the background.

And it would be great to be able to use location-aware applications, such as turn-by-turn direction software and pedometer apps, while doing something else in the foreground.

But don't get too excited. TechCrunch makes a strong case that iPhone 4.0 isn't coming this summer, noting that developers need time to get ready. Apple released beta builds of major releases in March in the last two years, and we've seen no sign of a beta build this month. Moreover, last year Apple had a big announcement in March for the iPhone OS 3.0, and Apple hasn't sent out any invitations for that kind of announcement this month. "iPhone OS 4.0 Looms, But When Will We See It?").

Even AppleInsider, which originated the rumor, adds a note of skepticism, noting that multitasking has been falsely rumored several times in the last year.

On the other hand, the Apple tablet was falsely rumored many times, until it actually came true. And John Gruber, who blogs at Daring Fireball, says his hunch is that the AppleInsider report is right, and I think highly of Gruber's blogging. And, finally, it's inevitable that Apple will include multitasking in the iPhone -- when they think they have it right.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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