The iPad and immersive computing

Multitasking on the iPad could prove to be a limitation, not an asset.

Do you remember the first iPhone? Only a pathetically slow EDGE cell network, no GPS, 8 GB max, and worst of all, no app store? And still it changed everything about smartphones, and was the first step in what seems to be a new industry war. Would you buy one today? Oh, so limited — never!

iPad CoverageI thought about that while reading Marco Arment’s post about everything the iPad doesn’t do. The iPad today isn’t a perfect device; developers haven’t yet figured out how to make it really sing; it doesn’t yet occupy an indispensable role in many of its owners’ lives. It’s the first step, and I believe it will continue to grow. But I’m amazed by some of the things I already love about it.

Probably the strongest of these is the focus the iPad creates for me. The lack of multitasking is a feature. I thought I’d miss this, and thought Android’s work on multitasking might be a strong counterpoint. It’s not. I love how focused I am using an iPad, versus working on a laptop. New mail isn’t constantly arriving; tweets aren’t Growling into view; I don’t even have an RSS reader installed. Instead I’m just reading a book or just playing a game or maybe just working. This is a huge relief, an antidote to interruption. (I’m sure having more than just one app running, as promised in OS 4.0, will be a benefit in some ways, but for today I love not having it.)

That focus, plus the direct manipulation interface that loses mouse and keyboard in favor of pointing and tapping, makes the experience of using an app more intimate than on a laptop. I think now of personal computing and iPad computing as significantly different. It’s not just a different form factor, but a different kind of work that I do on the iPad. Put simply, it seems to produce a flow state much more easily for me, and once I’m in it, I fall out into distraction much less easily.

The apps and features that I most look forward to on the future iPad are those that make this immersive computing experience more ubiquitous and useful.

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  • Miguel Marcos

    It all falls down to *how* you use the device. I like to jot things down while I’m reading (an eBook or web page). The current switching apps sequence in iPhoneOS represents a breakdown in focus. The whole quit-launch-do your thing-quit-re-launch routine gets tiring.

    I agree about the interruptions emaila and tweets represent but ultimately that’s a personal responsibility: Just don’t launch your email and twitter clients when you need to focus, regardless of the device or platform. But the option of multitasking: Yes, please!

  • lemon

    I love my iPad. It has almost completely replaced my personal computer. For the things I do… Is is perfect! Much nicer than any CPU I have ever owned. All my other computers would do a lot of things I would never use it for, and do it painfully in the process (slow, buggy, etc.). When you get down to what you do most on you personal computer… the iPad does almost all of the things an average user needs, and with a much much nicer U/I. Easy of use, fast, and efficient. The other computer manufacturers could learn a thing or two from this, but even if they do… they will probably screw-up the one they come out with by adding all the crap back in again. Ugggggg!!!!

    I am sticking with my iPad. I think other will do the same once they try it and realize it is the perfect personal computer :-)
    And some of my collections:
    make the cool device more fun.

  • Bernard Van De Walle

    There is something I must react to!
    I find it a little bit easy to call the lack of multitasking a “feature”.

    You people in love with Apple are so convinced that what they do is so perfect that even when something is missing, you make something out in order to explain the missing feature!

    But on the other hand, I totally agree that it is way more efficient to work/read/play without being interrupted by something! But I don’t call that a feature, just a way of organising myself…

    It is a little bit like if you say that working on a typewritter from the ’70s is way wore efficient than today just because you can’t be interupted by twitter or your emails!

  • NNM

    You seem to enjoy its lack of features.
    So my immediate thought is: this guy is unorganized, easily distracted and should not use twitter while working.
    So, you should just be reminded to sort your emails on intervals, unregister from twitter, adblock facebook, and whatever other things you’re doing while you should be working.
    The iPad is an insult to humanity in my opinion (to exagerate slighlty). Another symptom of idiocracy, people getting dumber.

  • Tink

    Multi-tasking is a standard human trait and requirement, it’s impossible to ignore.

  • adampasz

    I’m one of those luddites who still uses the original iphone. It’s not really so bad. Edge is fine for checking email and basic web browsing, and I get the same OS upgrades everyone else does, so I can use the app. store as well.

  • Chris Lamb

    Re: Only using EDGE – I am currently between phones. Got rid of my iPhone and waiting on a new handset. Using my old Blackberry with no 3G or Wifi.

    I haven’t noticed any difference whatsoever!

    I used to use twitter, check emails and watch my Facebook friends. Still do and with almost no difference at all.

    Which makes me respond by saying that I kinda agree with some of the article. However, I agree that we too rapidly diss technology – which is utterly functional and productive – because we are so spoilt by “improvements”.

    On the other hand – let’s not pretend lack of multi-tasking is anything than a result of the OS architecture and the fact that it still needs some work. That, however, is soon about to change. Then we will read articles saying “Remember when the iPad/iPhone didn’t have multi-tasking”.

  • Alex Tolley

    The new “Koolaid” – “single tasking is a feature”.

    Puhleeeze. The iPhone’s lack of multi-tasking is extremely limiting as it works more like DOS with TSR. You have all that screen real estate in the iPad, and you claim to not want different apps running?

    If you want immersive, ditch the iPad and read a book.

  • James Throckmorton

    I’m all for limiting distraction — and often use a bare linux text console for writing — but surely one would be better off with genuine multitasking and the ability to switch it off, right?

  • Tammy

    Funny. I don’t have an iPad, but I do have an ereader (the new Kobo; I love it), and I was recently telling a friend how much I love that it’s a unitask device in this age of bloated multitaskers. My friend was incredulous and couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t also want to use my Kobo to check email, do my banking, and make waffles.

    I suspect that those of us who are secretly relieved to use simple devices are in the minority. Which means we should enjoy our unitaskers while we can, because they probably won’t be around long. (Confession: I sort of miss my first cell phone, which, in addition to letting me make calls, also told me what time it was. It also held a charge for weeks and lasted for nine years.)

  • John

    THANK YOU for acknowledging the usefulness of the ipad/iphone not being a multitask device.

    I feel there is a large benefit from limiting developers access to multitasking on a mobile device that relies so much on battery life.

    You can’t trust all apps to use the best practices possible to optimize their programs for other apps that are running concurrently.

  • William

    No Multitasking is essential, I work better with multitasking, if I need to check something on the web, Ill just quickly open safari and then back to my document. And plus the lack of multitasking can also be annoying: once you start something unproductive its hard to end


  • Pete

    Marc: You want to focus while in Android? Just turn “OFF” the sync service feature. It is just a tap away. Multi-tasking does not necessarily mean for the user. It primarily means for the OS and applications. Of course the iPad has multi-tasking, otherwise it could not do anything in the background which it obviously does. It’s just Apple reserves this use for themselves and not other applications and not certainly not for users.

    Are you saying you do not want to have the option of listening to music while reading? Are you saying you want to wait for your book to download in its entirety before you can open the first page? Are you saying you do not want your iPad to download media like news, magazines, music, and video in the background while you read a book? I mean if you cannot configure the thing to stop alerting you then that is just bad design.

    I have Twitter and Facebook on my Android device and it is not constantly bugging me unless I want it to. That is because I have the choice. I like it that way.

    Actually, the rumor is that Apple is putting “cooperative multi-tasking” in their next iPhone OS. This is still not true multi-tasking but at least other applications can start to leverage it. Oh and then Apple can claim “me too”. Apparently, unlike you, Apple seems to think the “lack of multi-tasking” is a limitation not a feature. I think you are confused as to what this actually means. Refer to this article.

    The real reason for not allowing preemptive multi-tasking is that the iPhone hardware is just not that capable. Apple has chosen to spend most of its hardware cost on the beautiful display and less on the CPU and RAM. Although, this limits what users can do, it sure looks pretty. And pretty always sells.

    This will probably change with the upcoming iPhone and OS, but please don’t make excuses for your iPad’s lack of multi-tasking. Apple chose wisely, at the time, to forgo multi-tasking, just like Palm OS did before them, but we are no longer in that era. High-end modern devices should not be so limited. My bet is Apple will address this “issue” in the next quarter because this will become a consumer issue come Christmas time.

  • Matt Johnston

    One thing is for sure – humans don’t multitask any more than most computers do.

    With OS4, the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad won’t lose the single-tasking focus. It just will enable you to get back to doing stuff while the OS silently waits for stuff to finish.
    Get back to writing while the picture upload completes? Done.
    Keep your location updated without having to actually manually update it? Done (yes, I use this for work and family – helps us organise stuff)
    So you’ll still be uni-tasking – because these are MT-aware services and not providing a real MT interface. They are specifically designed to let you skip out of apps where your attention is not needed.

    And Pete – where do you get your facts? iPhone OS already has pre-emptive multitasking. And they’re not adding co-operative multitasking.

  • Steffan Antonas


    Nicholas Carr wrote a great article in this month’s Wired on how “The Web Shatters Focus and Rewires our Brains”. I don’t own an iPad, but I definitely identify and empathize with your celebration of “staying in flow and focusing”. The science sighted in Carr’s article and research implies that becoming an expert web surfer completely changes how you read (and how long you focus). Any heavy net readers know what the impulse to quit reading after a few paragraphs and skim feels like and how frustrating days of this type of reading is – the joy of reading, as well as the joy of learning and retention is about FLOW and focus. I think you’ve hit on something important here – maybe check out Carr’s stuff. I think you guys are beating on the same drum. Here’s a link to the article:

  • PXLated

    Even though, as a somewhat geeky type, I would like multitasking for certain things, I would agree that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And it can be down right bad for the average user considering one uses battery power.
    An example – Watched a gal sitting with a geek squad type doing tech support on her Droid. It was running extremely slow, had no battery life, and she’d spent 35 minutes at Verizon where they couldn’t figure it out. The geek checked what she had running, downloaded a task manager and showed her how to use it. 15 minutes and $25 later she was out the door. Multitasking could just mean continued employment and expansion into mobile for the geek support types.

  • silent

    It’s a feature in the same way that lacking flash means less distractions and interruptions… I consider the lack of flash is also a feature

  • nlw

    That is silly to say. I do agree that the limitation makes it more “safe”, makes it very unlikely that the user will ever experience the system getting slow. And Linux and other systems should look for better resource-management policies. Apple did it in an extreme way, they traded (general) multitasking for being sure that the user experience is always of a very powerful system, for being sure that silly users wouldn’t demand too much and then start complaining for their own mistakes.

    But to say that wearing a bridle and blinders is good is crazy. Do you think the MS Windows versions that artificially limit the number of simultaneous processes should cost more than the original version?

    Discipline is freedom. And costs nothing, go get some in the life-store

  • Chris Schetter

    This ‘curated/restricted computing’ nonsense is just that. The lack of multitasking was a deal breaker for myself and many others regarding the iPhone, and is just laughable for a device in a larger form factor.

    I don’t see how Apple’s deliberate decision to restrict the computing experience in this manner, for no other reasons other than to pad their battery life statistics and pure arrogance, could be apologized for in the manner that the author and so many others are doing.

    Is the average computing consumer really that dense that they need their hand held by their device manufacturer in order to streamline their ‘flow’ or manage their device’s battery life? It’s possible. But it’s embarassing to see those more technically inclined acting like Apple is unlocking mystical secrets of the human mind by offering an inferior experience.

    If I’m trying to get something done and I’m being derailed by other things open – like Tweetdeck, or Meebo, or email – I do this crazy thing: I close them.

    If you need the lack of choice, if you need your computing decisions made for you, buy Apple products. If you’re like me and you are able to and actually prefer managing your computational workflow, you’re not going to be buying a new Apple product for a long…long time.

  • Greg

    The thing I most liked about your post was the focus on *flow state* (and thanks for that link – I had not heard that term). I want to find ppl also interested in enabling networks of ppl with a shared focus to connect more efficiently and for a whole lot of reasons (biz, edu, senior care, etc). Love it that talk over the iPad raises this topic!