I tried split-screen multitasking on the iPad, and here’s what I discovered

OS X brought to iOS

Sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side.

Almost from the start, iPad users have begged and pleaded with Apple to add a missing feature: split-screen multitasking.

Split-screen multitasking is the ability to run two or more apps simultaneously, side by side, just like you can on a desktop computer. But iOS, of course, is the antithesis of traditional multitasking. You can have only one app on the screen at a time.

That may be about to change. Apple is rumored to be adding multitasking to the iPad in iOS 8, which is expected to be shown to developers at next month’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference.

With split screen multitasking, you could write a paper in Pages on the left while researching in Safari on the right. You may even be able to drag and drop items between the two apps, like photos or chunks of text.

For some, this would be nirvana. Better multitasking would turbocharge the iPad, especially for work, right?.

Microsoft loves to crow about the Surface 2 tablet’s ability to multitask, which in Redmond’s eyes makes the tablet appear more suited for work than watching cat videos. Some iPad users have been lobbying for it for years. The feature has been the subject of plenty UI mockups, design videos, and jailbreak tweaks.

My iPad Air is jailbroken, and for the last week I’ve been using a new jailbreak tweak called OS Experience, which allows me to have split-screen multitasking.

I’ve tried using it as part of my daily workflow. And what I found was surprising.

multiscreen1

If the Mac’s way of managing desktops came to the iPad, it would look like this.

Firstly, OS Experience is a pretty impressive implementation of desktop-class multitasking on the iPad. There’s an OS X Mission Control-like interface, which allows you to move apps around between virtual desktops like you can on the Mac. It also has the ability to run multiple apps side by side. There’s even the nifty snap-to-edge gesture coined by the Microsoft Surface.

With OS Experience, I’ve been able to fully interact with apps like Tweetbot and Safari side by side. I was pumped to use it when the tweak came out, as I’ve always had trouble getting work done on my iPad. There are those out there that can turn the iPad into a real workhorse, but I haven’t been able to find a system that works for me.

Over the last week I’ve discovered to my great disappointment that split-screen multitasking on the iPad has not been helpful. If anything, it has detracted from my ability to work.

I like to browse my Twitter feed and surf the web at the same time on my Mac, so I thought the habit would translate well to the iPad, right? Nope. The main problem is that the iPad Air’s screen size just isn’t big enough. My eyes are good with glasses, but text was pretty difficult to read even on the Retina display. I can’t imagine trying it on the iPad mini.

multiscreeniOS

Snapping apps to the side of the screen in OS Experience.

Split-screen multitasking is pretty much just visual trickery. I tried running Pages and Simplenote side by side with the idea that copying and pasting text would be easier. It wasn’t. It was actually more tedious, largely for the same reason I’ve already mentioned: screen real estate.

There’s also something to be said for not having a physical keyboard and a mouse. I’ve always associated that kind of tactical feedback with desktop-like multitasking. Using two apps side by side just isn’t as good when everything is touch-driven with virtual keyboards.

The time it takes to visually switch between two apps with a swipe on iOS is negligible. There are probably those that disagree, but I don’t think split-screen multitasking is the answer to unlocking more productivity on the iPad.

The beauty of iOS is that it forces you to live in one app at a time

The beauty of iOS is that it forces you to live in one app at a time. iOS devices are blank pieces of glass that apps create fullscreen experiences inside. That design choice by Apple has caused iOS developers to make their apps incredibly immersive, and the result is that you are more engaged in each app.

How often do you try to do a lot of things at once on your Mac and find that you’re actually not getting anything done at all? Studies have shown that humans are terrible at focusing on more than one thing at once, and contrary to what most women want you to believe, its an ineptitude that’s not just limited to men.

Like most bloggers, I usually have no less than 20 tabs running in my Mac’s web browser, a few chat windows open, Twitter running, Mail buzzing me with a new message every five seconds, and so on. It’s overwhelming. When I want to de-stress and focus on one thing at a time, I turn to my iPad.

If Apple does introduce some sort of split-screen multitasking experience for the iPad in iOS 8, I don’t doubt that it will be slick and polished. It will probably be the best implementation out there, because Apple exceeds at learning from the competition and making things better.

Apple was in a similar position when it introduced copy and paste in 2009. Every other smartphone had the feature already, but Apple took the time to do it more elegantly than everyone else. So perhaps Apple’s implementation of split-screen multitasking will be quite unlike OS Experience, or even the Microsoft Surface. I hope so.

This is overkill.

This is overkill.

Split-screen multitasking on the iPad begins to make much more sense when Apple starts making bigger and bigger screen sizes. A 13-inch iPad that can run apps side by side? There could be some real appeal there, especially for the enterprise, where the idea of traditional, desktop multitasking still reigns supreme.

But in the state we’re in now, multitasking on the iPad is the way it should be: one app at a time.

  • Adrayven

    Agreed! I don’t see it functionally practical …. I’ve a friend with the ability on his Galaxy S3 and he rarely uses it.. It’s a meme too feature for most who will rarely, if ever, use it….

    • MrMLK

      Good point. Because if multiple apps at once doesn’t work on a 4.8 inch screen it probably won’t work on a 9.7 inch display either.

      • Jurassic

        With split screen on a tablet you are cutting your usable area for each app in half. That doesn’t make any sense as it decreases productivity.

        The smarter solution already exists on your iPad. You can easily move between full-screen running apps, by swiping left or right with your four fingers. (You don’t need to double-tap the home button, then scroll through reduced windows of running apps, and then click on the window of your choice).

        Many iPad users don’t know of this easy-to-use method, and so they think that having two apps reduced to half-screen is the solution, when they could be scrolling over to another running full-screen app!

      • MrMLK

        You sound like a guy who has never tried this. As a guy who does it all the time, let me tell you its great.

        Its not about easily jumping from one app to another, its about using both of them at the same time.

        You now how some people like to play solitaire or surf the web on their tablet while they watch TV. This is kind of the same thing, except without the TV.

        A video that take up half the screen of a tablet is still quite watchable, and a web browser or a game that takes the other half is also quite usable.

        All I can say is, try it, you’ll like it. Its not about being more productive, its about being more entertained.

      • Jurassic

        “Its not about easily jumping from one app to another, its about using both of them at the same time.”

        Can you demonstrate that?

        It is only humanly possible to use one app at a time (you can’t multi-task like a computer, and be using multi-touch SIMULTANEOUSLY on two or more apps). What you are really doing is working on one half of the screen (perhaps to write or move something), and then working on the other half of the screen.

        It is more productive to work on two full-screen apps, than it is to work on two half-screen apps.

        Even for watching movies or other videos while you work, if you are concentrating on watching a movie in a half-screen window, you are not working on whatever app is running in the other half-screen window. Your brain can only handle one task at a time.

        So if you are watching a video, you are much better off watching it full screen than half-screen, because while you are watching it you are not working on that spreadsheet, or playing a game, or really able to do anything else without moving your concentration and activity to that other task.

        So you may think you are being more productive watching a video while doing a spreadsheet (or any other app) but it is the opposite. Your productivity actually slows down as you jump back and forth between the two.

        Even listening to music while working on an app is anti-productive… unless you are really not paying attention to the music, and you are fully focused on your productivity task.

      • MrMLK

        I can’t tell if you are kidding, or really just not understanding the concept.

        Assuming you are serious, I am happy to let you in on a secret. When I am watching some TV show on my tablet and playing a game or surfing the web, I am not trying to maximize my productivity. I’m not even thinking about my productivity. I’m just having fun. I almost never use my tablet for work anyhow. Its an entertainment device. Please don’t tell me any more productivity tips, as I am not trying to be productive. And unless you never do anything else while you watch TV, please don’t pretend that you aren’t aware that most everyone multitasks in their leisure time.

        It doesn’t work very well for real-time games, but for card games or puzzles games, its great.

        I will say this, I think two side-by-side apps (or more likely, top and bottom) are probably plenty. A full windowing system is over kill.

      • samantha842

        Ever reply to one email while referencing things said in another?
        Ever write a paper that used information found in various sources?
        Ever watch a howto video while you were following along?

        I do all of those things, and my god they suck when you can only have one program in sight at a time.

        Multiple windows is not about “multitasking”. Its about efficiently completing a task that requires multiple tools or information sources.

      • Mel Gross

        Why not? The tablet has more than twice the area, and much higher resolution.

      • MrMLK

        Actually about 4 times the area.
        And I was being sarcastic.

  • TheMadTurtle

    Is it just me or are they going to great lengths to make the iPad experience more like a laptop? Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPad, but, if this is the kind of thing you need, why aren’t you using a MBAir?

    • http://davidfoster.net D_Foster

      Maybe because one isn’t handy at the moment. Maybe because you could only afford one or the other and you picked the iPad for weight and battery longevity. Just maybe because someone else’s perspective of how to use the iPad is a bit different from yours. I will say this — editing a comment on this forum with an iPad is no fun if you want to go back and change something. The editor is twitchy at best, uncooperative at worst. It does seem like there is some sort of general world view that iPad’s are for viewing stuff — not creating stuff. They are, however, wonderful devices to create content of all kinds. The major obstacle seems to be people with the contrarian viewpoint.

      • TheMadTurtle

        Wow. I think you took my comment too personally. I was just asking the question – i.e. trying to learn about another point of view – quite the opposite of being contrarian, actually. It seems to me that if you need to be multi-tasking, as this article indicates, that maybe the iPad wasn’t the right choice. Hence my question, which you sort of answered – battery life and weight. I suppose for some those two things might outweigh the overall functionality – like true multitasking. If you need true multitasking, however, that would seem to be more important by my thinking. But that’s JUST ME.

  • Mark Murphy

    I don’t get the people complaining about multitasking being a feature. You don’t have to use it. For those that will, it’s a big plus.

    • Atlas

      Of course we have to complain about functions that change the core concept of a product. Part of the success of the iPad and iPhone were that they do not multitask. The simplicity of it. If Apple adds multitasking it will be extremely basic and simple.

  • Jacob Bolduc

    I like how he said he had trouble viewing it “even on the Retina Display” as if it’s an actual decent screen.

    • itpromike

      What’s wrong with the retina display? Pretty much 2k res and and great color reproduction…

      • jonathanober

        I think he means because the 9.7″ screen now cut in half or thirds with the app means harder to read text and reflow nightmares for app developers.

    • :)

      Since most people can’t discern the pixels while using the iPad, it’s pretty much the best screen they’ll ever need. What’s the point in upping specs if it literally does not provide a benefit? Apart from selling it to guys who are compensating for something else, of course.

  • MrMLK

    Forget about multitasking for work. You haven’t lived until you’ve watched a movie while playing a game or watched a movie while surfing the web. That’s what multitasking is really for.

    • Atlas

      You haven’t lived if you are unable to fully enjoy something while being concentrated on it.
      Watching a movie while playing is NOT watching the movie. Or maybe you can watch two things at once?

      • MrMLK

        Are you really telling me that you never do anything else while you are watching TV? Do you really believe that every video you watch needs your full attention? Who do you think you are kidding?

        Having done it many times, I’ll just tell you that alternating between a video and (for example) a game of solitaire is a lot of fun, even if you don’t give your full attention to either one. Its important to pick the right video (dense movies, dramas and mysteries do not work well) and the right game (solitaire, puzzles games, etc rather then real time action games), but its really a lot of fun.

      • Atlas

        I don’t see that many people doing that, whatever the kind of movie. Of course having two apps at once would be a nice plus, but only if done well, and I imagine they’ll do it on iPad Pro only.

  • PiotrW

    Four finger shortcuts for task switching are so effective, that I never missed having two apps on a single screen. Once it became second nature, I just am always using that app that I think of, as if no physical movement was involved. Never got to that point with cmd-tab shortcut on the mac

  • Nick V

    Bitch about Samsung, and then steal from them…. No outrage??? Surprise!!!

    • Rafterman00

      Don’t worry. When iOS8 is released, the great innovation of split screen apps will be hailed s a milestone.

      • Atlas

        Its implementation will certainly be better!
        To drag and drop you need to activate an option on Touchwiz, it’s a disaster lol.

        And who introduced multi window to the consumer market again?
        Oh right, that was Apple!

    • winstonsmith39

      Samsung didn’t invent multitasking, unless you live in a different universe where they did.

      • Nick V

        And Apple didn’t invent round corners, rectangles or wedges… But they claimed they did. But Samsung has been using multitasking, in this manner, longer than others, but now that Apple is catching up to 2011, I guess they are innovative all over again…

      • Guy

        Why not just be happy with the tech you chose to buy instead of being so upset over other people’s choices? AH, but then you couldn’t feel superior could you?

      • Nick V

        Nice deflect. I guess when Apple is stealing and not innovating, the rest of the community should sit back and say, “ahhh, that’s nice”. I guess you’ll also get the new Apple Phablet too, after you probably made fun at all the Android users with their big phones.

      • winstonsmith39

        Who are they stealing from, Mr Troll? Not Samsung.

      • Nick V

        Both Samsung and MS had it, and now Apple will copy. Apple has lost all hopes in the innovation dept. They now rely on what Samsung, Google and MS are doing to plan their next moves.

        The dummy phones that have been making the rounds look like an HTC/Samsung hybrid. I guess when you can’t beat them, copy them

      • Guy

        Depends on if anyone in the family needs new phone. We have three iPhones and one HTC Android. The next one needing a phone would be my son with the HTC. If he wants another Android phone, he can have it. If he wants an iPhone I’ll give him my 5S and get a new one. Otherwise we’ll wait. I don’t upgrade each year.

        I also don’t hang out in Android stories being a DB like you do…must be nice to have a hobby.

      • Nick V

        You just did. Welcome the club DB!

      • Guy

        Did I now? Could have sworn this was a story about Apple products

    • Marcus Winchester

      Sorry but Samsung’s implementation is piss poor and has limited support and is not platform wide. It needs to be integrated all throughout the OS, not just as a superficial layer on top. The only OS’s to get this right are Mac OS and Windows

      • Nick V

        Samsung can only use it on their own apps, unless they want to rewrite all of Android. Touchwiz apps are the only ones affected by their split screening. That’s the only drawback for Samsung.

  • Mark Langston

    You didn’t really try multitasking on your iPad, you tried a jailbreak concept that sucked.

    The biggest issue is that the jailbreak isn’t reformatting the apps so the app thinks it’s using all 9.7″ of the iPad’s real estate, not a 3.5″ square floating in space.

    Going on nothing more than a hunch I’m 100% confident that Apple would NEVER implement multitasking in this way. I saw another concept that made more sense (not sure if I saw it here or 9to5Mac) but it was much cleaner and still used the entirety of the iPad’s screen and, again, reformatted the apps to ensure they were still legible based on the amount of screen they were using.

    • :)

      This is not just a concept, it’s a published tweak that is actively being updated and it’s purchasable in Cydia.

      You’re right though, Apple would have apps written the way they’d intend their implementation to work.

  • Sam Doohickey

    Do we really need a ‘bigger’ Swiss Army knife? Are tablet users really craving for more complexity? And if so, why not just use a laptop instead?

    Microsoft, for reasons that still baffle me, loves to focus on the ‘quantity’ aspects of their products, rather than the ‘quality’ aspects. The “more is better because its more” approach. Remember the Windows 8 rollout disaster? “Let’s give em both just in case they want to use both” “How can we go wrong if we give them everything?” Design is certainly not a pillar of Microsofts core values. In fact, I’d dare say it’s considered a ‘bad’ word in Redmond, never to be uttered in the presence of large crowds.

    What makes the iPad a league beyond of the other tablets is it’s ability to function more like an appliance than a computer science experiment. This is precisely why the masses have championed it over and over. If you want complexity, hyper control, essentially a marginalized laptop, then get a Surface. If you want a tablet that just works, intuitively, then get an iPad.

    This functionality will eventually make it into the iOS, I have no doubt. Whether it’s a feature the masses will embrace is another issue. As we mature with the tablet platform, we will naturally be able to absorb more complexity. Have we arrived at that point? I don’t see the urgency for it yet. After reading this article, it seems this feature is probably one most of us will never use – much like the forgettable OS X Mission Control/Spaces.

    • Ian McT

      I own a Surface and an iPad, i have found that i almost exlusively use the Surface and rarely touch the iPad. It isn’t about complexity, it is just a more capable tool.

    • Joe_HTH

      LOL! Here’s the typical clueless Apple shill. Let me educate you Doohickey or whatever your name is.

      1. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 easily match if not exceed the iPad in terms of design and build quality. It’s obvious you’ve never seen one.

      2. The performance of Surface tablets matches the iPad, and far exceeds it on the Pro models.

      3. The quality of all of those features on the Surface tablets is first rate. How is a tablet having a lot more features a bad thing. The only reason you make this argument is because the iPad is sorely lacking In features. If it ever gets some of those features, you’ll be raving about them like the shill you are.

      4. The Surface tablets have by far the best web browsing on tablets. Android and iOS aren’t even close. Fully flash and HTML5 enabled web browsing.

      5. Multi-tasking works like a dream on Surface tablets.

      About the only thing Microsoft hasn’t gotten right are economics and the distribution channel, but the tablets are top class with state of the art build quality, features and performance.

      • Sam Doohickey

        Wow, this wreaks of MS PR. Sounds like you work for them, and if you don’t you might see if they can give you a job. You deserve at least a few bucks for this pitch.

        Your points, though weak, are ultimately unconvincing. A bullet point list makes you sound like a cheap politician. Try formulating a real thought to structure your argument. I’m not beyond convincing that the Surface is a decent ‘something’, but all my ‘experience’ with it has proven wanting in all your points.

        Good luck with your Surface, I have no doubt it will serve you well. However, it will never bring you out of the dark ages of WinTel.

        As for the name calling. Well, I guess we can all hope that one day you will finally mature. Until then, keep trying to stick it to the iPad enthusiasts. God knows the world needs more mediocrity.

  • inknzvl

    The main problems with this opinions is, they always try to get the same functionability they get on a 27″ screen. I have been using an app that allows me to split my screen. I open a document on the left and a blank note on the right to write notes about the doc or to translate it, It works flawless (before? I had to open the doc on my iPhone and make notes on iPad or switch apps constantly). I have a MacBook Air that only use for sync and transfer music, photos etc. of course if you are a desk worker this don’t work for you.
    I want native multitask. Yes.

  • John Smith

    You can’t say that multitasking in the iPad is good or bad because it’s not here yet.
    What you mentioned is one approach from someone outside Apple, we don’t even know if that rumor is true. If it comes out please test, use the real thing and give your opinion about that.
    You can’t say it wont work because you tried a jailbreak hack.

    • :)

      Sure he can say it won’t work for him. It would mean that this implementation doesn’t add up to the author’s productivity. If Apple were to scale apps, the author would not deem it very useful. I don’t think Apple would scale apps into a windowed mode as on OS X, though.

  • Ron Hawkins

    I remember, way way back in time, when the ability to multi-task was lauded as a fantastic reason to own an Amiga.

  • Tam Phan

    I disagree with most of this article. This was a very narrow-minded way to draw broad conclusions for what multi-tasking on an iPad could be like and it’s potential usefulness. This article should be titled as a review of OS experience.

  • http://davidfoster.net D_Foster

    The way it should be? Exactly who gets to say how things SHOULD be? Side-by-side apps should be an option, wherever and whenever it makes sense. If you are writing a note to schedule tasks, having a calendar right there makes sense. Writing about the weather; that forecast and current conditions window is more handy than switching back and forth. I don’t see split screens as a fundamental way to work on the iPad all the time, but I don’t see why someone’s draconian ‘my way or the highway’ perspective should rule out the option for the rest of us who might find that capability useful from time to time. Just introduce it in a way that’s optional and doesn’t get unnecessarily in the way, that’s all.

  • http://NewWorldRising.com/ jkcomics

    Make it work with a bluetooth keyboard and trackpad by using the apple key and z x c v buttons and I’m all for it. Other than that I prolly wouldn’t use it but I wouldn’t mind having the option. I don’t use every available option on my iPad now.

  • SR_Penny

    You didn’t try ‘iOS multitasking’, you tried some horrible jailbreak hack of a program, which in NO WAY relates to anything that Apple might or might not be doing.

  • http://www.asktog.com/ Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini

    We knew by 1979 that “tiling” widows, i. e., laying them side by side, was inappropriate for small screens. That led to Apple inventing overlapping windows. Overlapping windows offer several advantages over single-window schemes: First, the user doesn’t need to learn from a friend the magic incantation for swiping between windows. Second, the user doesn’t have to maintain a constantly shifting mental model as to which way and how many times to swipe to access a particular app. Third, the back window, showing as a small block to the side of the main window, acts as a huge Fitts’s Law target, making it remarkably fast and easy to bring that window forward.

    Steve Jobs was the master of the innovative new product. Apple’s mistake with the Mac was enshrining it in amber after Steve’s departure, allowing the competition to literally overpower it. What makes a new product successful is not the same as what makes it successful long-term. The Model T, like the original Mac and original iPad, was the sole of simplicity and restraint. No one wants a Model T anymore, and fewer and fewer will want an original iPad as they come to understand the full breadth of what a tablet can do if not held back.

    The iPad has a larger screen than the original Mac. It’s faster and has more memory than the city-block-sized, $17 million dollar Cray supercomputer that came out about the same time as the original Mac. It is not a toy. It is not required to remain a reader. There is no reason why, as user’s skills and desires grow, the iPad can’t grow with them. This requires adding real power, multi-window multitasking being only one small example. Turning the visual design on it’s head every twelve months—monochrome last year, harlequin this year—in the pursuit of fashion is no substitute for true innovation.

    -Former Apple employee #66

    • Ace

      Woz, is that you?

      • http://www.asktog.com/ Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini

        Woz was Apple employee #1. (Jobs was issued badge #2, but when I passed him in the hall the very next day, his badge read Employee #0, putting Woz, with #1, in second place. All very confusing.) I was #66, as I stated. I designed the first Apple interface, for the Apple II, in the fall of 1978 and had a hand at being keeper of both the Apple II and Macintosh interfaces during my 14 year tenure at Apple. Chris Espinosa, badge #8, wrote the original guidelines for the Mac. The Mac interface was strongly influenced by the interface that Larry Tesler and Bill Atkinson designed for the Lisa computer. The Lisa was the first GUI with overlapping windows.’

        I should have also pointed out that if you have overlapping windows and the power to resize them that you can then lay one window beside another if you so choose. You get the effect of tiling but with the ability to decide how large each window is, rather than simply dividing the screen in two, and you can go back to overlapping them any time you want. -Tog, not Woz

  • Acrofilo

    Most of you are missing the obvious point: split screen multitasking is not for the current iPads but for the upcoming 13 inch and probably larger ones.

  • my2cents

    Agreed, and a bigger tablet defeats my purpose. One app at a time for me.

  • ShawnHyde

    why not put two iPhone apps next to each other on the ipad screen? That wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it?

  • John Harlow

    I can’t see this being super useful as a way to run several business apps at once, but I can see situations where I had my slingbox (or other video app) in a small window that just floated over the app I was running. Let me touch into that window to use or reposition it. Likewise for an ssh session or something like that.

  • Marcus Winchester

    Oh come on, a split screen Windows 8 Metro solution is NOT the solution. It harms screen real estate madly. The only way to go about it is to take a traditional Windows or OSX approach to it with floating, scaleable windows, it makes total sense to do it that way

    • A. P.

      Sure, because it’s so fun to scale windows individually in both horizontal and vertical size. /s

      Windows’ split screen is lovely, especially since 8.1 where you can have a snapped view (most apps show content in a different way, adapting to the lower screen estate) or just a horizontally smaller window you can manage easily. Give it a few more months and iOS will come with the same features, don’t worry, just give it time.

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath is a senior writer at Cult of Mac and co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by the likes of the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too.

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