The idea of multitasking on mobile devices has been a hot topic for years. It's been debated since the early days of smartphones, when devices such as the Treo based on Palm OS could not handle more than one task at a time, while handsets based on the Windows Mobile platform had the capability. The issue reached a crescendo with the release of the iPhone (and more recently with the iPad) and lack of multitasking capability for third party apps. This week it's come up once again, with news from MIX10 that Microsoft would not support multitasking for third party apps on Windows Phone 7 Series, at least initially.
I think it's a non-issue for the most part, and that Apple and Microsoft are doing the right thing for the mass market by limiting multitask use for third party apps. The irony here is that one of the biggest criticisms for years was Windows Mobile's lack of a task manager and the ability to kill applications that were running. Complaints were so high about multitasking that almost every phone shipped with some sort of third-party task manager. Likewise, the first software I download for any Android device is a task manager to kill background tasks and apps The reason is simple. Running in the background, too many third-party apps overuse system resources, memory, and network to the point where almost any machine with multitasking capability ends up running slowly and killing battery life. With fast suspend and resume of existing app processes there's very little need for most third party apps to run as background processes, with a few notable exceptions.
It would be easy to simply dismiss third party apps running in the background, except there are two use cases that do matter. First are music apps such as Pandora and Rhapsody. I'd love both of those apps to work on the background of my device and using those apps on Android and WebOS phones is a big differentiator. Second, GPS and turn-by-turn direction programs both benefit from the ability to access GPS content while another app is running such as a navigation program. There's arguments for apps like Twitter as well but I think most of those use cases could easily be handled through things like notifications services to let me know something has happened.
What I'd really like to see is Apple and Microsoft figure out some way to allow third parties to do multitasking and run in the background. While it may not be a mass market case, there's a lot of folks like me who want to be able to control this activity. It really needs three aspects. One, the ability for me to designate which applications I want to run as background tasks. Second, an easy way (as Palm has shown in WebOS) to switch between them. Finally, there needs to be a way to kill unneeded apps -- in particular, this is where Windows Mobile 6.x and Android fail, despite their multitasking capabilities.
Multitasking is far more important on the personal computer -- whose windowed UI and raw horsepower make it not just a luxury but a necessity -- and one way the personal computer trumps the phone. That said, vendors need to address the mainstream use case of background media functions and location services for third parties to truly make their platforms valuable to users. Longer term, the smart ones will let the power users make the call of performance and battery life for themselves.
Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.