Switched On: Taking the iPhone to tasks

Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Apple may be right that the benefits of multitasking do not outweigh its costs at this point, and the company will address at least some of the needs that have traditionally been met with background apps via its reworked push service and in-app e-mail due to launch this summer. However, the rationale presented at the iPhone OS 3.0 event this week against background apps is an incomplete argument at best.

First, let's turn back to when Apple first announced that the iPhone would not support background applications at WWDC last June. Apple's Scott Forstall showed a screen shot of Windows Mobile's busy Task Manager noting, "This is nuts." He pointed out how background applications consume cycles, sandbagging performance, and consume battery life. But since when does Apple accept that Microsoft's implementation of something is the last word?

And at the iPhone OS 3.0 preview, in a quantitative justification of the background process ban that included relaying testing on Android, Apple talked about how running a background IM client can reduce standby time at least 80 percent, whereas a push system reduces standby time only 23 percent. However, the case against background applications is not so straightforward.

Background applications are not necessarily on whenever the phone is on. A good example of this is IM. It's not unusual to run mobile IM clients in the background on other phones and turn them off when returning to a PC and access to a richer user interface and more convenient notification. Furthermore, there's the scenario where you might be switching between two applications for a limited time, say, the Web browser and an e-mail client. As soon as you're done with the quick Web lookup, you close the browser. Also, if a consumer is so concerned about battery life, no one is forcing that user to use or even install background applications.

In addition, background apps consume battery life in two ways -- one is by accessing the processor, another is by accessing the radio. IM clients do both, but other background applications might work only offline and not be as taxing. An example of such background applications would be automatic spell-checking or word replacement or, yes, Apple's own iPod application,

Yes, the iPhone does allow background processes – Apple's. While every other music player for the iPhone will stop playing when you exit it, Apple's iPod application will play in the background. Obviously, this consumes cycles, but Apple doesn't seem to mind the tax on battery life here. This is defensible in a product that is branded an iPod, but makes too strong of a subjective decision in a platform like the iPhone where all applications should be equal.

And even though the iPhone is generally responsive allowing one application open at a time, it still gets bogged down at times. This might indeed by worse if the iPhone multitasked, but limited multitasking on other smartphones seems to provide an acceptable level of responsiveness. It may be opening Pandora's box to try to manage limited multitasking, but the iPhone could probably handle it with limited impact to performance and battery life.

Indeed, Palm is doing just this with the Pre even though the kinds of applications we can expect to see developed for it will likely be less taxing overall. Palm's webOS and Android devices will certainly provide more empirical evidence as to the viability of multitasking in a modern smartphone operating system. True, we are not now seeing applications for those platforms that are as rich as some iPhone applications (and with iPhone OS 3.0, the rich will get quite a bit richer), but it seems perverse that customers should have to accept such a compromise for having a platform that can enable such powerful applications.

Banning background applications may yield other benefits, such as enhanced security, increased simplicity, and a more uniform experience by minimizing hacks maximizing foreground application performance. But with much of the low-hanging fruit now digested in iPhone OS 3.0, Apple will have to keep an open mind on the multitasking issue as consumers continue to dance the Home button-swipe-tap shuffle. While enabling multitasking might compromise some part of the user experience, forbidding it compromises part of that experience, too.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.