Hey, Apple, Microsoft, mobile multitasking is a necessity

Apple's "Get a sneak peak into the future of iPhone OS" event, in two days, is reason enough to re-raise the thorny topic of multitasking on smartphones. Apple's iPhone OS 3.x -- on iPad, iPhone and iPod touch -- limits running background applications. Microsoft is taking a similar approach with Windows Phone 7 (Thank God, the company dropped "Series" from the name).

Here's where I whack aside the head my former analyst colleague, Michael Gartenberg -- or you can whack me (in comments) if you agree with him. Gartenberg and I are polarized on the topic of mobile multitasking. He thinks it's unnecessary, I say it's a necessity. In March 25 post "Windows Phone 7 Series imitates Apple's iPhone in the worst ways," I asserted: "People take multitasking for granted on the PC, which will make its absence more noticeable on the smartphone." I'd argue that because of applications' or features' contextual appeal, running background applications will increase in appeal over time. There are reasons why Google, Nokia or Palm operating systems allow multitasking, and seem to do so without any major hit on battery life (I've tested Android, Maemo and Symbian devices, but not WebOS).

"The idea of multitasking on mobile devices has been a hot topic for years," Gartenberg explains in March 26 post "Mobile multitasking is mostly a myth." He continues: "I think it's a non-issue for the most part, and that Apple and Microsoft are doing the right thing for the mass market by limiting multitask use for third party apps... Multitasking is far more important on the personal computer -- whose windowed UI and raw horsepower make it not just a luxury but a necessity -- and one way the personal computer trumps the phone."

Well, I simply don't agree, and I wonder about my former colleague's real opinion (analysts do have clients they might not want to offend). While saying multitasking isn't necessary, the Altimeter Group partner also longing writes about how much he wants more running background applications:

There are two use cases that do matter. First are music apps such as Pandora and Rhapsody. I'd love both of those apps to work on the background of my device and using those apps on Android and WebOS phones is a big differentiator. Second, GPS and turn-by-turn direction programs both benefit from the ability to access GPS content while another app is running such as a navigation program. There's arguments for apps like Twitter as well but I think most of those use cases could easily be handled through things like notifications services to let me know something has happened.

I agree about streaming apps and turn-by-turn functions but disagree about Twitter. Social media is perhaps the most important case for why running background applications on smartphones is necessary. The core functionality of any handset is communications. Before 2007, communications generally meant telephony or texting. No longer. Google, HTC, Motorola, Nokia and Sony Ericsson incorporate real-time social networking features into their multitasking OS handsets for good reasons. Social sharing contextually extends the mobile phone's core communications capabilities -- as did texting and multimedia messaging earlier in the decade. Push-notifications aren't enough. Sorry, Apple and Microsoft.

"What I'd really like to see is Apple and Microsoft figure out some way to allow third parties to do multitasking and run in the background," Gartenberg wishes. The question he should ask -- and everyone else reading this post: Why makers of other smartphone operating systems -- and their hardware partners -- can allow third-party applications to run in the background? Perhaps more: What's functionally flawed with Apple and Microsoft hardware/software/services that third-party applications must be prevented from running in the background?

Gartenberg also asserts that mobile multitasking is not a "mass market case." Really? Why then do all major US carriers offer a fairly broad selection of multitasking mobiles to consumers? Some of these handsets come with customized UIs, such as Motorola's MotoBlur, for connecting to social networks in real time. Why also are Canadian and European carriers announcing plans to offer the hot, new Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 subsidized to consumers? The smartphone offers real-time social connections and, of course, allows third-party applications to run in the background.

Context is key, particularly for Millennials accustomed to doing many things -- blogging, gaming, homework, listening to music, social networking and watching videos -- at once on PCs. Even more than the PC, the smartphone is highly contextual, with usage changing depending on circumstance and often demanding multiple functions or applications to be available nearly simultaneously. Gartenberg's turn-by-turn example is a good one, if, say, the user is walking to a destination, streaming from Pandora, searching Google for the nearest coffee shop, using location services to see if any friends are nearby, but suddenly stopping to snap a photo of a llama in the street and then uploading it to Facebook and Twitter. Multitasking mobile operating systems make easier these kinds of rapidly changing contextual scenarios.

Do you agree with Gartenberg or me -- or perhaps neither? Please answer in comments.

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