I don’t usually write about technology much anymore these days, but the Internet is currently ablaze with opinions on Apple’s new iPad announcement several hours ago. A lot of these opinions are just echo-chamber drivel, i.e., but I wanted to share some thoughts on one of the foremost complaints about the iPad, i.e., the “glaring” lack of multitasking.
Wirth’s Law states that “Software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster,” and nowhere is this law more true than in the mobile space. The computing power that you can squeeze out of these smaller machines is severely restricted by physical limits such as size, heat output and power usage. The single most common source of computer frustration is the fact that our machines take too long to do what we ask of them, whether it is opening a Word document or loading up a desktop game. We know from Wirth’s Law that the software is the culprit here. In fact, no matter how advanced our hardware gets, our software will continue to overtax it. That’s just the way we write code, I suppose.
Are there any solutions? Well, Apple’s solution was to not allow third-party apps to multitask at all. This, at least, restricts the number of applications competing for your device’s limited resources. People have been whining about the lack of multitasking in the iPhone since its inception, and they continue to do so with the new iPad. But having used all manner of smartphones, pocketPCs, netbooks and tabletPCs over the past 6 years, I can say with much conviction that multitasking did not make these devices better. All it did was make them slower. Generally, you end up turning all of the other apps off anyway, because the foreground application needed as much computing power as your device could muster.
What people tend to misunderstand about these smaller mobile devices is that you cannot look at them the same way you look at a full-blown laptop or workstation. Even the manufacturers misunderstand this, which is primarily why the TabletPC initiative floundered during the mid-00’s, and why smartphones have such limited resonance with consumers. They just shoehorn traditional ideas into a form-factor that is fundamentally different, and people just end up getting confused about what it’s for. And these machines are always, without fail, abysmally slow. This is ironic, because the primary use-case of a mobile device is that you are using it “when you’re on the go,” i.e., when time is most critical. Instead you find yourself rooting around the Task Manager killing various processes just so you’ll have enough memory to load up OneNote. The sledgehammer “single-tasking” solution that Apple took with the iPhone has largely been vindicated by the fact that it now boasts 17 million users around the world, and I think that doing the same thing with the iPad was a good idea. It keeps thing simple, and here’s the really important bit: reliable.
There’s this saying that, as a designer, you know your work is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. It’s this exclusionist strategy that has served Apple so well with their consumer devices. By stripping their mobile products down to the essentials, and then polishing the heck out of those essentials, they’ve produced devices that people describe with words like “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking.” Me, I’m just glad it doesn’t multitask.