iPhone 4.0 Multitasking Preview: Exposé-Like App Switcher

It’s one of the most frequently-cited weaknesses of iPhone OS, from the iPhone to iPod Touch to iPad: it can’t multitask. iPhone 4.0 should change that, and we might know how.

iphone expose


It’s another long-standing rumor. Every other competing mobile OS, including Google‘s Android, Palm’s WebOS, RIM’s BlackBerry, and Microsoft‘s Windows Mobile, is capable of running more than one third-party app at a time. But on the iPhone, if you’re listening to Pandora and have to quickly look up a restaurant on Yelp, you’ve got to shut down Pandora, open Yelp, find your listing, shut down Yelp, and then restart Pandora–and by then, you’ve lost the song you were listening to, and if you want to quickly reference Yelp again, you’ve got to repeat the entire process all over again. Simple, yes, but limiting.

Apple has been making little strides toward multitasking–it’s always been able to run the precious few first-party apps simultaneously (iPod, email, calendar), and recently the company introduced push notifications, those little blue bubbles that pop up when something is happening elsewhere in your phone. But the ability to multitask is one of the most frequently requested (and rumored) features for the next-gen iPhone, and now it looks like we may know some of the details.

AppleInsider reports that switching between apps will be by virtue of an Expose-like screen. Expose is a Mac OS feature which presents thumbnails of all active programs on one screen, allowing the user to simply click on one to bring that program to the front. It makes a lot of sense on the iPhone–it’s aesthetically consistent, and Apple doesn’t have to invent anything new.

Supposedly the app switcher will be triggered by a double click on the home button, and instead of thumbnails will show the app icon, which is fine, since the screen is so small thumbnails wouldn’t be of much use. This info supposedly comes from an insider source.

However, that doesn’t deal with some of the problems multitasking brings with it. The iPhone’s push notification bubbles may have to go–they’re quite annoying even when you can run only one program at once, and a simple flashing LED light (as seen in Android and BlackBerry) is a much less intrusive solution. Besides that, we don’t know how Apple plans to allow users to shut down programs. In Android and BlackBerry, users have to download a separate “task killer” app, an effective if not wholly integrated solution. WebOS, Palm’s struggling OS, may have the best solution–pressing the “home” button shows large thumbnails, or “cards,” and by flicking them upwards, you close the program. Apple would do well to look to Palm’s example on this one.

Multitasking is a tricky upgrade for an OS so focused on simplicity as the iPhone OS. But once you’ve used it, you can’t go back–and Apple doesn’t really have a choice at this point. “Mobile Exposé” is a good starting point, but multitasking will need some serious work to be as seamless as the rest of the OS. Hopefully they can pull it off.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.