Could We Treat Multitasking for Apps Like Push Notifications?

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iPad Multi-tasking Bar

Just about everyone I know who has updated to iOS 4.2 and tried out the Multitasking Bar for rapid app switching loves this new feature. I definitely do as well. But .. nearly everyone I talk to about the ‘multitasking’ of apps (which is misused term, but that’s another story) is concerned about how many apps end up running in the Multitasking Bar. They worry about what effect this has on their battery life or even on general performance of their iPad.

From what I can gather about how the Multitasking Bar works, there are a couple of things to note about apps and ‘running’ in the background via the Multitasking Bar (which I’m going to shorten to MT Bar for the rest of this post), such as:

— Very few apps are actually running in the background when you see them listed in the MT Bar.  The only ones that are really running (and multitasking) are ones that use one of the very limited set of allowed background services – for example navigation apps or music apps like Pandora Radio – each of which are allowed to have a defined sort of process that can run in the background.

— The vast majority of apps that are shown in the MT Bar are just recently used apps that are ‘resident’ to some extent, but without any truly active process associated with them, but not fully closed. To fully close them you tap and hold on any one of them, wait for the apps to wiggle and show a red minus symbol above each, and tap the minus symbol for the one you want to close.

Given the above, it doesn’t seem like there should be any great general performance hit to the iPad when you have quite a lot of apps showing in the MT bar. It does feel as if there is some impact though, especially if you have several games or multimedia-packing apps left not fully closed – or at least that is my impression. I’ve often found that if an app I’m in starts to act more instable than usual, it will perform better when I remember to shut down (fully close) a handful of potentially resource-hungry apps / games in the MT Bar.

The thing is though, 99.9% of the time I never wanted to accumulate a long line of partly-alive apps in the MT Bar anyway. Since the vast majority of the apps I run (apart from a few good music apps) are not able to do anything useful for me in the background anyway, and they remember where I last left off with them even when fully closed, I don’t need or want them to be partially awake when I move to another app.

Every time I open up the MT Bar and see a weather app, the App Store, the Settings app, Photos app, or any of several games there, it’s a little frustrating – because they’re not doing anything productive for me and I don’t need rapid access to them right then, or even that often.

Also, my impression is that since I first installed iOS 4.2 (way back at the first developer beta) my battery life has suffered a little. Not drastically, but noticeably – and I would guess that this is directly related to having a lot of apps ‘resident’ in whatever way (not fully closed) via the MT Bar. I run a slew of apps every day – partly because I love my iPad and I’m an apps addict, and also because I am almost always reviewing a number of apps as well.

Now I should make clear that for me the trade-off of a bit less battery life for the tremendous productivity gain that rapid app-switching brings is one I am more than happy to accept. But … I can still wish for improvement in this area though.

What’s the point of all my rambling on this? I think Apple should look at a refinement of the way apps and the MT Bar are handled. I’m not a developer and don’t know how easy or hard / possible / not possible this would be – but I would love to see ‘backgrounding’ of apps (to any degree) be an option. An option that gets treated just as push notifications are.

So when I launch Rage HD it will prompt me and ask whether I want to allow it to reside in the background at all. Same with my Weather HD app. And every other 3rd party app. For most of them I’ll say No Thanks, as there no advantage to having them even partially awake and visible in the MT Bar.

Even if it turns out that all these partly-awake apps use just about zero resource or battery power (which I doubt), there are many that I just don’t need to see in the bar. For instance, apps that I already have in my dock, or on my first home screen. I feel content with being able to get to those quickly enough, in most cases. For exceptions, like Things for task management, I could happily say yes when prompted about letting them reside in the MT Bar. Or got to Settings, just as we do with push notifications, and toggle to Yes / On for the apps I do want to be able to rapidly switch to.

What do you all think? Is this a silly idea?  Not practical?  Would it help if you were able to choose which apps show up or are allowed to reside in the MT Bar? Have you noticed any effect on battery life since updating to 4.2?

Patrick Jordan

Founder and Editor in Chief of iPad Insight. Husband, father to a lovely daughter, Commander of the Armies of the North, dog lover (especially Labs), Austinite, former Londoner, IT consultant, huge sports nut, iPad and mobile tech blogger, mobile apps junkie.

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9 thoughts on “Could We Treat Multitasking for Apps Like Push Notifications?”

  1. While I think I would eventually get annoyed by being prompted every time I opened an app whether to background it or not, I do think something should be done – even if it's just a panel in Settings with a Yes/No toggle for every installed app. I don't need rapid access to the App Store pretty much ever, among other apps… and thanks to the advent of folders, EVERYTHING on my iPad is either on the first screen or the Dock, so having lots of unnecessary things in my Multitasking Bar is kinda silly.

    That said, I have definitely noticed a hit to my battery life after installing 4.2. It's most definitely noticeable; I'd guesstimate I've lost 3 hours of battery life or so per full charge.

  2. Or you could just jailbreak your iPad and install multicleaner. It cleans the recent apps from the multitasking bar and shows only the effectively running apps. That was one of the reasons for me to jailbreak.

    1. I've had my iPad jailbroken at certain times, but honestly since 4.2 came out I feel very little temptation to do so again. Especially right now while there is only a tethered jailbreak available.

  3. Since downloading the new 4.2 my IPad has become erratic, often freezes and cannot be rebooted. The Genius Bar said it was because of multitasking but even when I close almost everything that is in the multitasking bar, my IPad is still very erratic and has become basically unusable.

    1. Sounds like you need to get a better answer from the Genius folks. It's not like multitasking is some unsupported, 3rd party feature. They should have concrete suggestions for getting better performance.

  4. I’ve actually wondered like you the effects of having those apps open and found out (using Pad info) that a lot more memory is being used when having those apps in the MT bar. This surely has a detrimental effect such as shorter battery life and a slightly poorer performance, no? I’m not an engineer or anything but I think that makes sense.

    Personally I’ve been hyped about multi-tasking since the iPad came out and thought it was a major disappointment. Many apps when thrown into the MT bar, do not resume from where I left off on going back to them. Some apps do though. Not sure if the apps have to be rewritten in a certain way to cater to that.

    Also, it’s ridiculous that on clicking the Home Screen button, any app is thrown into the MT bar. I think using your logic, what Apple should do, is on clicking the home button, have two icons on the screen. Close or Pause. Pause throws the app into the MT bar, while Close just terminates it.

    So far iOS4.2 has been awesome except for the MT (are we calling it that now?) feature and the lock button turning to Mute…

    1. If you're seeing apps that don't remember their state (where they left off) that is definitely an app issue, not an OS or OS 4.2 problem.

      I just said MT Bar to save a little typing as the post got longer – I wouldn't suggest that multitasking get shortened to MT.

  5. One unexpected consequence for developers is that under 4.2, when an app is closed it does not unload. All the objects and data being used by the app stay in memory. If the app icon is tapped again, the app starts exactly where it left off, and any initialization that the developer might have expected to take place does not in fact occur. This isn't an issue if you expect it, but any apps coded before 4.2 may not have anticipated this happening. For example, they may not save data in a timely way.

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