Multitasking: Let the User Decide, Not the Computer Maker

One of the weirder memes I’ve seen in a while has emerged among some iPads fanatics. In this instance, at least a few folks are thrilled by one of the device’s major shortcomings.

Mark Hedlund, for example, is a super-smart guy. But I’m baffled by his post praising the iPad for its lack of multitasking capabilities — running more than one program at once so users can a) let automatic updates occur behind the scenes while they do stuff, such as read or work, in the foreground; and b) quickly switch back and forth, working on several tasks in a quasi-parallel mode.

I’m not the only one who thinks multitasking is an essential part of a modern computing device. In Apple’s case, the Pope Steve Jobs has decreed multitasking will be in the next version of the iPhone operating system, which is also the software heart of the iPad.

In any event, Marc writes that the iPad is in a different category from a personal computer. I agree on that, to a degree, but consider what that means to Marc:

I love how focused I am using an iPad, versus working on a laptop. New mail isn’t constantly arriving; tweets aren’t Growling into view; I don’t even have an RSS reader installed. Instead I’m just reading a book or just playing a game or maybe just working. This is a huge relief, an antidote to interruption. (I’m sure having more than just one app running, as promised in OS 4.0, will be a benefit in some ways, but for today I love not having it.)

That focus, plus the direct manipulation interface that loses mouse and keyboard in favor of pointing and tapping, makes the experience of using an app more intimate than on a laptop. I think now of personal computing and iPad computing as significantly different. It’s not just a different form factor, but a different kind of work that I do on the iPad. Put simply, it seems to produce a flow state much more easily for me, and once I’m in it, I fall out into distraction much less easily.

I confess, I don’t get it.

Although the Mac I’m using to write this posting has multitasking built into the operating system, it’s my decision whether to become distracted or not as I work. I choose, at the moment, not to be distracted by Twitter, email or the latest news from my favorite journalists and bloggers. I choose to be writing this post, and I’ll stop when I’m finished.

I can prevent email and Tweets from arriving (and often do) without crippling the computer. Here’s my system: I often shut down my email and Twitter software when I’m working on a blog post or book chapter or anything else demanding as much of my attention as I’m able to give. Works like a charm, and when I want to leave myself open to distraction again I start up the other software.

Again, I’m not oblivious to Marc’s basic point: He doesn’t see the iPad as a a computer as much as a device that he wants to use for only one thing at a time, given its size and features. When I get a tablet device, however, I’ll want the option even if I rarely use it.

2 thoughts on “Multitasking: Let the User Decide, Not the Computer Maker”

  1. As I mentioned in a Tweet, multitasking can be good or bad on a mobile device. Not just from distractions (there are many who suffer from that, aren’t as disciplined as others) but also device overload. I watched a gal spend $25 with a geek squad type – her problem was her Droid was almost unusable, slow, and no battery life. She’d spent 35min at Verizon, they were no help. Turns out, too many processes going. Geek download a process killer and taught her how to use it (do it a couple times a day).

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