Multitasking or serial-unitasking?

Along time ago, at least in computer years, we used to debate whether cooperative multitasking was enough or if we really needed the pre-emptive kind. Apple was right in the middle of this debate then, and still is today.

Published: Sat 2 Apr 2011, 11:47 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 7:03 PM

Before Mac OS X, Apple’s operating systems supported only cooperative multitasking, meaning that an application had to voluntarily give up some of its time to other applications for the others to run. So if you were running an application that didn’t play nice with the others, nothing else could run and do things in the background.

That changed with Mac OS X which, in the best UNIX tradition, supports pre-emptive multitasking. The difference is that the OS oversees what applications and services do and hands out processor and other resources as it sees fit.

In reality, to debate whether multitasking is cooperative or pre-emptive matters very little to you, as a user, and it shouldn’t. When you work with your Mac, iPhone or iPad you just want to get things done.

I’ve found the debate about multitasking on iPhone and iPad very interesting from the start because most people talk about wanting multitasking without really knowing what they’re talking about, to be frank.

The simple fact is that with regards to smartphones and tablets, with multitasking we simply mean whether some things can run in the background and alert us if something happens, like with instant messaging.

On mobile platforms we also want apps to return to the state we left them in when we switched out of them. The second feature was supported by well-behaving iOS apps even before multitasking was introduced in iOS 4 and the first, is now, within limits, also supported.

In other words, we want to be able to focus on one thing at a time but be informed when certain events occur. Sounds like serial-unitasking more than multitasking to me.

So, I ask you, could it be, that despite iPads and other devices that multitask, we really unitask most of the time? No, I didn’t invent the word or concept, in fact I read it on the Web somewhere but can’t find where now.

Flying is actually a great example of unitasking. Sitting in the cabin in one place for hours on end there’s not much that can distract your attention. An iPad is as perfect a flying companion as I can think of. The environment in a plane makes it easy to work on one thing like writing an article, edit a video, etc. On a flight you also have the added benefit of not having an Internet connection, at least not most of the time.

If you think about it that’s also the express purpose of the iPad, where all apps run full screen so you can focus on one thing at a time. You work on one thing, then the next: serial-unitasking.

My view is that we should stop focusing so much on whether iPad multitasks or not. The real limit in terms of multitasking is within us, not in the technology we use.

Magnus Nystedt talks and writes about technology as much as he can. Follow him on Twitter as @mnystedt for the latest on consumer technology in the Middle East.

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