If you’ve ever tried to sit down for some serious emailing on a phone or tablet, you know it can get ugly in a hurry–and not just because of the on-screen keyboard.
What happens if you need to reference another message? You need to save your message as a draft and return to your inbox to find what you need. Then, you must go back to your list of drafts to re-open your unfinished email. Should you need to go back to that reference message or dig up a different one, you’ve got to start the whole process over again.
With Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google has come up with a solution–not only for email, but for any mobile app where you might juggle multiple tasks. It’s called “concurrent activities,” and it’s sort of a mobile spin on how desktop software allows for multiple windows of the same program. When you look at your recent apps in Lollipop’s newly renovated task switcher, you may see more than one card from any given app. These can include separate cards for your inbox and compose windows in Gmail, or multiple documents in Google Docs.
Strangely, there hasn’t been much discussion of concurrent activities outside of Google’s own documentation and the occasional passing remark on tech blogs. But in terms of setting up a mobile operating system for serious productivity, this is the biggest step anyone’s taken in years.]
The word “multitasking” can mean a lot of things, but let’s define it broadly as moving more efficiently between tasks on a computer. This is easy enough on desktop machines, which can lean on keyboard shortcuts, trackpad gestures, and screens large enough for taskbars and windowing. But none of those ideas translate well to phones and tablets, so software companies have been on a Holy Grail-like hunt for decent mobile multitasking since the launch of the original iPhone.
The obvious path is to take the side-by-side window concept of desktop computers and adapt it to phones and tablets. That’s exactly what Microsoft has tried to do with Windows 8, and what Samsung has attempted with its Android devices. In both cases, you can drag a second (or third, or fourth) app onto the screen, splitting it up into two smaller windows for each app.
While split-screen multitasking is useful in some cases, it also causes its own problems, says Raluca Budiu, a senior researcher for Nielsen Norman Group. Split-screen “makes an already small screen even smaller” and gives users even less space to work.
As a result, users must spend more time scrolling to get the same information, and have to remember more since they can’t keep as much information on the screen, Budiu says. A study by Nielsen Norman proved this idea when it found that comprehension on mobile devices is twice as bad as it is on desktops. “So the smaller the effective screen space, the poorer the experience,” Budiu says.
Split-screen also poses significant design challenges, both for the operating system and for third-party apps. Pinning two phone or tablet apps next to each other may require complex gestures (as is the case with Windows 8.1) and more work for developers, and some apps just don’t look right when they’re confined to a smaller window.
It’s no surprise, then, that Budiu said she hasn’t observed many Samsung or Windows 8 tablet users taking advantage of split-screen features. And while Apple is rumored to be working on a split-screen mode for iPads, the specifics of how it’ll tackle these issues are unclear. As 9to5Mac has reported, Apple could just reserve the feature for a larger (and so far unconfirmed) iPad or cancel it altogether.
Google is coming at the problem from a completely different angle. Instead of trying to mash multiple apps together on the same screen, it’s making the existing app switcher–which many people do use, according to Budiu–more efficient.
Prior to Android 5.0 Lollipop, the app switcher was no help if you were moving between two tasks in the same app. In terms of efficiency, constantly going back to your inbox or document list is sort of like going back to the home screen every time you want to switch apps. Until now, no one’s even tried to solve this issue.
The way Android can handle concurrent activities is pretty slick. Hit the compose button in Gmail, for instance, and the inbox fades into the background while the composition window slides upward into view. This is a subtle signal, telling the user that Gmail has created something new instead of simply switching screens. Sure enough, when you go to the task switcher, the inbox card is next in line behind the composition window.
Granted, concurrent activities aren’t a complete solution. As Budiu pointed out, they still requires a lot of switching back and forth, with the “cognitive burden” of having to remember the information in each window. Though they don’t introduce the issues you get with split-screen apps, they don’t solve exactly the same problems.
Google’s implementation also isn’t perfect. With Google Drive, for instance, you don’t get the same subtle animation signals that exist within Gmail. And there just isn’t much support for concurrent activities yet beyond Gmail, Drive, and open tabs in Chrome. When developers do get around to supporting the feature, there’s a risk that they’ll abuse it by crowding the recent apps list with a dozen of their own windows. (Google has set a hard limit of 50 concurrent tasks on all but low-end devices, which seems impractically high.)
Still, it’s hard not to be excited for the possibilities. I’d kill for a way to swap back and forth between my two Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues without hitting a half-dozen buttons each time, and wouldn’t mind being able to jump between different photo albums, notes in Google Keep, and lists in Twitter.
And maybe some day, Google can fold concurrent activities into a split-screen multitasking system that actually makes sense. Rumors have at least hinted at the possibility. In the meantime, it’s building on a system that already works–and at the very least making mobile email less of a disaster.