After being deprived of some key smartphone functionality for so long, it looks like some seriously welcome relief is set to drop this summer via iPhone 4.0. Sourcing “people familiar with Apple's plans,” Apple Insider reports that third-party apps will be allowed to run in the background. Actually it already posted earlier this month that this was coming, but didn’t have specifics on how it would be handled — until now.
“…iPhone [4.0] OS will deliver new support for running multiple concurrent third party apps, and allow users to switch between them using a windows management mechanism similar to one made popular on the company's Mac OS X operating system.” The mechanism mentioned here is is called Exposé.
On Mac OS X, when users activate Exposé by keypress or navigating the mouse to a hot corner, they can move between applications by selecting thumbnails of the programs’ content. This is fast and easy, and makes multitasking a visually appealing experience. The adaptation for the iPhone reportedly uses app icons instead of thumbnail images of application contents.
Interestingly, WebOS’ card-style multitasking seems to resemble Exposé more closely than this solution. (The cards appear as snapshots of the app’s current state, though users do swipe through a line of cards, instead of seeing them all on one screen, like Exposé.) As for why Cupertino chose static icons, it’s possible it was the simplest and least resource-intensive option.
Apple’s big problem with allowing third-party apps to run in the background has had to do with resource consumption. Though jailbroken multitasking shows us that the hardware can handle it, the company’s made it clear that battery life and handset performance were still major concerns. (Android and WinMo get around this by letting users manually kill certain intensive programs.) Now it seems Apple’s figured out how to work around those issues. Not sure what else is going under the hood that could be optimizing things, although I’m suddenly reminded of the rumor that the highly efficient A4 chip might be going into the iPhone 4G. That’s interesting. (And as a side note, if iPhone’s getting multitasking, wouldn’t that then mean the iPad’s getting it too? That’s even more interesting.)
To keep with Apple’s “just works” ethos, the app-switching was going to have to be easy and smooth. And it looks like it will be: A combination of key presses — probably two taps of the home key — to activate the interface, and the user would see icons representing all currently running apps and be able to select/switch between them. Choosing one shuts down Exposé and calls up the chosen app.
I might’ve slightly preferred a Coverflow-style interface over Exposé, but that’s picking nits at this point. Multitasking is so way, way overdue on this platform, I’ll take it however I can get it.
On a positive note though, I’ll reference something my friend Marin, over at IntoMobile, said: It may seem like forever for certain ubiquitous smartphone features to show up on the iPhone (uh, how long did MMS or copy/paste take?), but when they do arrive, the experience tends to be easy and sufficiently bug-free. He notes that the system-wide copy/paste function on the iPhone is one of the best implementations on any platform. I agree. If this is anything close to the elegance of that long-delayed, but ultimately well-designed feature, then we’re in for a treat. Finally.
In addition to multitasking, peeks at the pre-release builds of the OS also included references to a universal inbox and the direct access to favorite contacts from the homescreen.
So if the iPhone OS gets all these new much-desired features, and even half the hardware rumors pan out, would it be enough to tempt you? If not, what else would you want to see? Seriously, if there's any buzz making the rounds that touches on those things, we'll bring it to you. So hit us up in the comments and let us know.
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