An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking’

There are many counterintuitive ‘rules’ in product design, these two are among the most intractable:

• The more successful a product, the harder it’s to upgrade.

• The more users say they want a product update, the more they complain when the change arrives.

It wouldn’t be unkind to ascribe both of them to the iOS platform: spectacularly successful and at the crossroads for the mother of all upgrades for both hardware and software, now commandeered for the first time by a single person who’s not named Steve Jobs. The financial impact of these design decisions is easily the 64-billion dollar question at Cupertino.

What has changed?

Having already sold over 120 million iPads in less than two years, Apple’s now making the sales pitch to hundreds of millions of potential post-PC consumers that iPads may be ‘OR’ devices, not just ‘AND’ adjuncts to their desktops and notebooks of yesteryear.

The iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 created their respective industry segments, then went on to dominate what was mostly virgin territory with a simple proposition: One Device > One Account > One App > One Window.

Several years after their introduction, now with many competitors, Apple is under pressure to examine every link in that chain of platform definition. And the one most contested is the last: One Window. While it’s true that iOS apps can contain two (and sometimes even more) ‘views’ in one screen, like the standard Master-Detail views, two different apps cannot share the same window. A blog writing app on an iPad can, for example, dedicate portions of its single window to video, map, search engine results or tweet displays, but not specifically to Vimeo, Google Maps, Bing or Twitter apps. In the sandboxed territories of iOS, ‘One Device > One Account > One App > One Window’ is still the law of the land.

As iPads move into business, education, healthcare and other vertical markets, however, expectations of what iPads should do beyond audio, video, ebook and simple app consumption have gone up dramatically. After all, users don’t just inertly read in one app at a time but write, code, design, compose, calculate, paint, clip, tweet, and, in general, perform multiple operations in multiple apps to complete a single task in one app.

In iOS, this involves double-clicking the Home button, swiping in the tray to find the other app, waiting for it to (re)load fully, locating the app view necessary to copy, double-clicking the Home button, finding the previous app in the tray and waiting for it to (re)load fully to paste the previously copied material. That’s just one operation between two apps. Composing a patient review for a doctor or creating a presentation for a student can easily involve many such operations among multiple apps.

Indeed, among the major post-iOS mobile platforms like Android, Metro and BlackBerry, iOS is the most cumbersome and slowest at inter-app navigation and task completion. There have been a few mitigating advances: gestural swipes, faster processors and more memory certainly help but the inter-app task sharing problem is becoming increasingly more acute. Unfortunately, solving iOS’s multitasking problem in general involves many other considerations, including introduction of UX complexity and thus considerable user re-education, to say nothing of major architectural OS changes. It may thus take Apple longer than expected to find an optimal solution. What can Apple do in the interim then?

Is ‘Multi’ the opposite of ‘One’?

Systems designers know all too well: when you just don’t have the time, money, staff or technology to solve a given problem, there are ways to cheat. Steve Jobs would be the first to tell you: that’s OK. A well executed cheat can be indistinguishable from a fundamental architectural transition.

From a design perspective, the weakest link in the one-task-many-operations-in-different-apps problem is the iOS clipboard. The single-slot clipboard. The one that forces the user to shuffle laboriously among apps to collect all the disparate items one. at. a. time.

But with a multi-slot clipboard, if you were writing a report, for example, you could go to a web page, copy the URL, a paragraph, maybe a photo and a person’s email address in one trip. Now a single trip back to the initial app and you have four items ready to be pasted into appropriate places with no more inter-app shuffle necessary. Instant 4X productivity gain. Simply put, if you had a four-slot clipboard, you can instantly quadruple your productivity. For a ten-slot clipboard, 10X!

Well, obviously, it’s not that easy. First of all, Apple doesn’t believe in multi-slot clipboards and doesn’t even ship one with Mac OS X. Also, you couldn’t really have an ‘infinite-slot’ clipboard, for iOS would run out of memory quickly. Finally, a multi-slot clipboard would require a visible UI for the user to select the right content, thereby introducing some cognitive complexity.

None of these objections seem insurmountable, though. iOS already has a similarly useful ‘option selectors’ like the recent ‘share sheets’ from which a user can send stuff to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Limiting the clipboard to four slots would enable at least 250-pixel square previews of each slot’s contents for easy identification. The Clipboard could pop, move up, slide in from right or perform some other clever animated appearance. Yes, there could be a cognitive penalty for having to be concerned about system-memory management, but a bit of user training for the concept of ‘First In, First Out’ or a little alert to the user indicating memory-intensive copying would go a long way.

It’s not my job to suggest Jony Ive how this might be implemented in UI and UX. But until Apple has a more general solution to multitasking and inter-app navigation, the four-slot clipboard with a visible UI should be announced at WWDC. I believe it would buy Ive another year for a more comprehensive architectural solution, as he’ll likely need it.

17 thoughts on “An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking’

  1. Great expectations, now that Apple is touting “desktop class” performance from its new 64-bit OS & CPU architecture shift with iOS7/A7 …

  2. As others have noted, the 1st thing that comes to mind is a scrapbook app, and an ‘insert palette/view’ available in apps, a la the Photo Picker.

    Of course this is in fact a common use of the Photos app, to save multiple images, to insert into another app. If users could save text to the Notes or a new ‘Snippets’ app, and then the ability to insert said text, you’d have the missing part.

    Ideally there’d be an easier means of saving media and audio to their respective apps (other than Safari) to fill out data interchange.

    Seems like the lowest impact, most familiar model to add a ‘multi-slot clipboard’ to iOS.

    • “always on Evernote” doesn’t exist when you’re offline and the Evernote app on your iOS device doesn’t have access to other apps’ data or objects, even if such a crucial OS-wide feature could be handed over to a third party, under extreme levels of insanity.

  3. Kontra, your description of switching among a current set of apps is COMPLETELY misleading! When you double click on the Home button the previous app you switched from is ALWAYS the FIRST app in the tray! There is NO “swiping through the tray to find the previous app”. Plus, immediately following the previous app are all the other apps you have been switching among! So unless you’re switching among more than 6 apps (in portrait) or 7 apps (in landscape) you would NEVER have to swipe through the tray to find one of the current apps. They are always right there in the tray as soon as you double click the Home button. And in the simple case of switching back and forth between two apps, every time you double click the Home button, the other app is always the first one in the tray. Please correct me if I’m wrong here😄

    As far as “waiting” for an app to reload when you switch back to it, I can only guess that you are either using the original iPad or you have the absolute minimum amount of memory installed, because on my iPad and iPhone this reloading time is instantaneous.

  4. hm… there are dozen of articles about same thing:

    - make iOS more like desktop -

    Why people are so narrow? iOS is (was) opportunity to reinvent computing, to get rid of some ridicules things!

    better watch, read and listen Ted Nelson and other “outsiders” to expand views.

    • 1. If you produce anything that requires accessing and copying objects in another app on iOS (text, photos, URLs, email addresses, etc) you will by definition have to make a round trip.

      2. One-slot clipboard on iOS demonstrably slows you down.

      3. Until a more elegant OS-wide inter-app solution is created by Apple, if you have a better one than this interim solution, I’m all ears.

      4. Until then, I have no idea what this “make iOS more like desktop” is about.

    • :) let’s try again: watch, read and listen Ted Nelson.

      I really do not care about “how to fix already broken things” – to understand this, you should spend weeks on Ted Nelson (and MANY others like him) ideas about computing.

  5. I’m not an iOS user, but your description of the comes and goes to just fetch one item at. a. time. from one app to another sounds painfully comic.

    I can understand that real multitasking must be OS-architectured almost from square one.

    But not believing in multiple-slot clipboards? It sounds stubborn and dumb.

  6. The burgeoning 3rd party iOS music creation app industry has long grappled with these multi-tasking & inter-app operation issues and come up independently of Apple with a number of approved solutions e.g. AudioCopy/AudioPaste and AudioBus which, combined with backgrounding, Core MIDI, fast app switching and gestures, has taken multitasking within the iOS audio creation genre to places no other mobile OS has even begun to explore let alone implement. Multiple windows I would venture to say are just “round the corner”, a matter of time especially now that storage capacity, RAM and CPU are trending towards triple-digit and double-digit Gigabyte/Gbps levels.

    Apple would (or should) not have failed to notice these needs or explore workarounds and system-wide solutions applicable to more generalised uses of their tablets, given their much-publicised and successful adoption in the Corporate world.

    • Oops. Last paragraph should have read:

      “now that storage capacity, RAM and CPU are trending towards triple-digit and double-digit Gigabyte/GHz levels”

  7. Apple’s Newton OS 2.0+ had a hidden feature that could be enabled by power users to provide multiple clipboards.

    A significant point of difference is that the Newton OS clipboard was not some invisible storage area, existing only in RAM. To cut the current selection and move it to the clipboard you simply drag it to the edge of the screen. It’d “stick” at the edge where you dragged it, until you wanted to drag it off somewhere else to “paste” it. Larger text clippings would be shown truncated with just the initial few characters and an ellipsis. Non-text clippings would be shown with a text identifier, like “Image.” Dragging a new selection to the edge of the screen would make any existing data on the clipboard disappear.

    Once the multiple clipboards feature was enabled the only change was that existing data “clipped” to the edge of the screen would no longer disappear when new selections were added to it. It was simplicity itself to drag a few items to the clipboard in one app, switch apps, and then drag them off one at a time in any order into the current app.

    FWIW, to make a copy of the current selection you’d double-tap on it before dragging–equivalent to holding down Option when doing a click-and-drag on selected text on a Mac.

    • Yes, there are many ways to expose ‘clipped’ items on an OS-basis so that they are available to all apps. There were collapsed “window shade” style tabs in earlier Mac OSes, even the classic Control Strip can be resurrected with X number of slots for recently clipped items, etc. Not holding my breath, though.

  8. Thank you.
    It’s good to see pragmatic solutions put forward instead of the tired canard of exposing the filesystem.

    It’s quick and dirty, works and can be extended to something smarter and more powerful later.
    The limited size and transient, in memory storage and transfer of the clipboard can be upgraded to the concept of a project acting as a logical grouping of heterogeneous pieces of data which could be written to from share sheets and read from the long tap context menu.

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