Managed multitasking for the masses - the Windows Phone and iOS way

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The world as it was back in 2006 or so. Symbian ruled the still fledgling smartphone world with over 50% market share. Windows Mobile had itself a niche, and Blackberry was still growing into an accepted smartphone platform. And all three allowed third party applications to multitask, to do what they liked in the background. This, it seems was one of the core tenets of what made a smartphone ‘smart’. Yet today, iOS and Windows Phone present a different and - much as it pains me to admit it - a better model for the 99% of humanity that has no interest in learning about RAM, GHz and background task management.

I’ve been watching people out in the real world you see, away from the tech bubble. Here are two real life examples which have brought home to me that, as smartphone adoption becomes the norm rather than the niche, the iOS/Windows Phone application model really is the way to go and never mind what geeks like me want.

This is how one conversation with a Samsung Galaxy-owning normob went:

“I’m really gutted, I had to delete thousands of emails in order to make my phone run faster - it’s been so slow recently. And I accidentally deleted a critical attachment.”

Warning bells galore went off in my head. For starters, I suspected that he was only deleting emails on his phone’s storage and that they still existed on the server and, don’t worry, we ended up finding the thing he needed online. But a bunch of emails shouldn’t cause a Samsung powerhouse to run slowly. What else could it be?

“Err… what’s that circular icon superimposed on the interface?”, I said, fearfully.

“Oh, that’s just a utility I downloaded that’s helping me clear some space. It runs all the time and err… helps.”

“Does it?”, I said doubtfully. “You might like to get rid of that for a start, it’s probably sucking up processor time. But in the meantime, why don’t we get you up and running with some sort of Internet sync for your documents so that you don’t lose an important file again?”

I installed Google’s Drive utility. A message popped up superimposed on the status bar” ‘Scanning Google Drive…’ The friend noticed me open-mouthed at the message: “Ah, yes, I installed an anti-virus program, just to be safe.” 

“So, do you side load Android apps often”, I said. 

“‘Side load’? Eh? I get my apps from the Play Store!”

“In which case you don’t need the antivirus at all either. Just get rid of it. Please.”

Two uninstalls later and some judicious hacking of Samsung’s settings, the Galaxy device was running far more sweetly. What’s all this got to do with Windows Phone? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Multitasking on Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. Greater differences than a visual inspection might suggest.

My second example comes from the little ones in my extended family. I used to bring along a Symbian or Android-powered smartphone when I visited, loaded with games and sketching apps, all stuff sub-seven year boys and girls would enjoy. Every fifteen minutes, I’d have to intervene though, as the device started getting hot or apps wouldn’t start, in each case because the kids, naturally enough, didn’t know about ‘exit’ing a game before starting the next one - they’d just mash down the home key and pick the next thing they wanted. Add in a few less than perfectly-behaved games into these full multitasking environments and you can see how things would deteriorate quickly.

For the last year or so, I’ve taken along my Nokia Lumia 520. Not only is it cheap enough hardware that it’s not the end of the world if it got dropped or smeared with peanut butter, but it runs Windows Phone (8). 

Apple, it seems, knew (badly behaved) multitasking would be a problem when it gave its initially rather functionally-limited iPhone the availability of third party applications in 2008. 'Apps' would have to be approved by Apple before being allowed into a central, curated store, plus they could only run while in the foreground. Press the home button on an iPhone and the application effectively stops dead - not necessarily such a disaster as you might think because well written applications save their exact state when terminated (the OS gives them a short time window in which to do this). And, over time, the ‘multitasking’ rules were relaxed a little to allow various background threads (e.g. for music playback and file downloads to complete), provided the app behaved itself. iOS today presents a list of applications that are effectively ‘multitasking’ - yet they’re not, on the whole, they’re often in a saved state, ready to be resumed quickly when needed.

Game on Lumia 520

Microsoft, then, had to decide which way to go when designing Windows Phone (7) in 2009, a year later (eventually launching with the first devices and big reveal in 2010). Should it go after the traditional professional, tech-savvy Windows Mobile market with another fully multitasking OS and side-loaded applications as easy as tapping on a web page download, or should it chase the mass market that Apple was starting to do so well in, where applications were strictly controlled, both in terms of discovery and execution on devices?

The latter seemed the way to go and, in light of the examples above, I think Microsoft was right. Yes, Android is now even more dominant than Symbian was in its day, but that's mainly about availability, pricing and marketing. It doesn’t make the OS ‘right’ or ‘perfect’. Multiply up the stories above across half a billion Android smartphones and you’ll find, if you look closely, behind the glossy AMOLED colours, styli and huge screens, users for whom things aren’t really running as they should. Clogged with always-running utilities that seemed like a good idea at the time, poorly written games that weren’t closed properly, home screens so clogged with widgets that they pan at the speed of treacle, devices that devour data and battery life far faster than they ought to. So many Android-using 'normobs'* have horror stories.

* 'normobs' = normal mobile users. If you're reading this article then you're not one of them! No doubt every Android user reading this (and I include myself in that number, since I have an Android device on the go all the time) will protest that their device is fast and efficient. Absolutely. But now go check Auntie Alice's six month old Galaxy S4 or mum Margaret's two year old HTC Sensation or your work friend Bob's Huawei G300 - and ask them how fast it's running and if they've had any problems. If you do so, resign yourself to a coffee break's tech support with them, getting things updated and optimised again.

Meanwhile, the average Windows Phone owner, at least, just gets on with enjoying a fast interface and applications that are incapable of bringing the whole OS down with them or taking over the hardware. One tap on the ‘Start’ button and the most confused app or the most rapacious game is safely suspended, cleaned up and ignored. There’s no concept of a third party ‘antivirus’ suite (ignore the misleading entries along these lines in the Windows Phone Store) or background ‘cleaner’ task since these wouldn’t run all the time anyway. Microsoft’s rules for what ‘background agents’ (attached to apps) can do are very strict, as we saw here in my tutorial on Podcast Lounge.

Add in, as on iOS, the quite deliberate non-existence of resource heavy runtimes like Flash, Java and Adobe Air, and the possibilities for non-tech-savvy users (the aforementioned normobs, possibly 99% of people these days) to get themselves into trouble are drastically reduced. Yes, Windows Phone still lacks a couple of functions here and there, plus it may still lack a few applications that you might enjoy on other mobile platforms, but it’s important to see the benefits as well as the downsides of an OS and ecosystem that’s tamper-proof.

So, while I, as a ‘power user’ and geek, might have decried the limited multitasking of both iOS and then Windows Phone a year or so later - and, don’t get me wrong, for my personal use I’d always have full and unfettered multitasking for all apps - I’m now more convinced than ever that Joe and Joanna Average in the High Street need protecting from their own (understandable) lack of geek knowledge. An intelligent mobile operating system manages multitasking for these people so that you (as their tech support) don't have to.