Some tech rumors pop up then fade quickly into obscurity, while others just keep coming back—one of the biggest of this sort concerns multitasking on the iPhone. It's here again, centered on the upcoming 4.0 firmware. And it rings slightly true.
This time the rumor's popped up at Appleinsider, based on information from sources that the site trusts based on past "proven track records" in predicting what Apple's next moves will be. The details that the site's revealed are sparse, because its sources have requested that some data remain under wraps since the iPhone 4.0 code is still very far from being finalized—it's not due at least until the next-gen iPhone hardware hits sometime around June.
But what these guys are suggesting is the key feature of iPhone 4.0 will be a fully-enabled multitasking solution. This is something that iPhone critics have wailed about ever since the iPhone hit the World in 2007, even while Apple has made sure the iPhone "user experience" remained seamless and rewarding without it. Apple's hardware has been technically capable of multitasking right from the get-go, and some of the built-in apps (most obviously the iPod player) are capable of running in the background while another task assumes control of the phone: It's only third-party developed apps that are locked out of running in parallel to another, and they have to resort to Apple's odd "push notifications" system instead.
Apple has cited many reasons for this, including highlighting how multitasking can sap battery life and necessitate complex fiddling around with task management UIs—such as Windows Mobile and even Android demands. Security is also a big feature—sandboxed, single purpose apps are much less likely to seize control of your phone or the data within and do bad things with it.
The thing that makes this new rumor slightly believable is the suggestion that the multitasking UI will leverage "interface technology already bundled" with Mac OS X. This instantly makes us think of OS X's mind bogglingly useful Exposé system, which with a simple gesture lets you switch between which task you have running in the foreground. Recent rumors have suggested that Apple will be bringing more complex gesture support to the iPad and next iPhone code, so may we hook these two rumors together and imagine that Apple's got a super-slick touchscreen-optimized version of Exposé in mind for iPhone 4.0?
What would Apple need to do to make this work technically, though? The issue of battery life is a real one, and can't be managed completely away by clever coding. If Apple's to deliver the same sort of battery lifespan as for current iPhones, or possibly more (since delivering less would be a PR disaster,) it'll need a bigger battery. This can be achieved inside the form factor of the current iPhone design by shrinking other components—which is certainly something Apple may have achieved. Or it could use a slightly bigger case, and there are a few images of the glass for the alleged 4th-gen iPhone in circulation that suggest a similar, but longer form factor.
Apple could also use more efficient tech elsewhere in the device to make up for multitasking battery-sapping: The fact it's using its own custom silicon, based on ARM's super-efficient designs, inside the iPad may well indicate Apple has similar plans for the iPhone 4th-gen too. And a new super-speed Apple iPhone chip could also alleviate one of the other problems associated with multitasking, which is performance slow-downs caused by several apps over-burdening a mobile CPU. Smart app management, with perhaps a limit on how many apps can run at once, and how many CPU cycles a background app is permitted to soak up, would also help with this.
After all that thinking, do we believe this rumor? It's tempting to do so—on many technical levels it makes sense, and it would be a powerful PR coup to challenge the growing ranks of the multitask-capable Android Army.
To keep abreast of rumors like this as the iPhone 4th-gen approaches, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.