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


OS X brought to iOS
OS X brought to iOS

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.

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.

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.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.