iOS 8 multitasking: What’s the holdup?

iOS 8 screensHas Apple painted itself into a corner with iOS 8 multitasking? I ask because, like many technology enthusiasts, I came away from WWDC feeling a bit let down. After all, everyone and their grandmother was expecting Apple to announce some sort of split-screen multitasking capability for iOS 8. Yet when Mr. Cook and friends took the stage there was no mention of the feature.

So, what happened? According to my sources, it all comes down to a programming mechanism known as "Auto Layout". Introduced with iOS 6, Auto Layout allows developers to create apps that support dynamic resizing, using pre-defined rules for object spacing to adapt an app’s UI to fit a particular screen resolution or orientation.

It’s an elegant solution to the problem of how to make iOS’ UX scalable across multiple display configurations. It’s also the cornerstone of Apple’s approach to split-screen operation: Assuming an app supports Auto Layout, it should be able to adapt to a reduced (I’m hearing 3/4, 1/2 and 1/4 screen window sizes are planned) display area without too much trouble.

The problem is, not all developers use Auto Layout. And those that do often eschew Apple’s graphical tools (Auto Layout is part of Xcode’s Interface Builder) in favor of hard-coding their own dynamic resizing logic. And once developers start working around a platform’s established methods, all compatibility bets are off.

Thus Apple finds itself in a bit of a bind. It can’t force developers to retool their apps for split-screen operation. Nor can it simply implement split-screen and hope users don’t mind the occasional buggy app experience (think Android’s early tablet days). The world’s most valuable company got to where it is by paying attention to detail, and a half-baked multi-windowing implementation is never going to make it out the doors of Apple’s Cupertino headquarters.

So, iOS users sit. And wait. And hope that their favorite technology company gets it all sorted out. Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to make hay with its side-by-side comparison spots showing how Windows 8.x lets you snap two or more apps onto a single screen (while quoting such gems from Siri as "I’m sorry, I can only do one thing at a time").

As a Windows tablet enthusiast (HP Envy x2) and sometime iOS user (I have a lowly iPod touch), I know first-hand how useful Windows 8.1’s split-screen multitasking can be. I use it every day when teaching class, researching lesson plans, or simply composing a letter in response to an email. It’s fast, fluid and makes my iPod running iOS 6.x feel anachronistic.

Frankly, I hope Apple finds a way out of that corner. The company’s devices are sleek and sexy. Its customers deserve an equally slick multitasking implementation, one that lets them take full advantage of the premium hardware they paid so dearly to procure.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fruits of Microsoft’s labors. The Redmond behemoth had the foresight to bake dynamic resizing into its Modern UI guidelines from the start -- an upside of approaching touch computing from a PC-centric perspective.

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