iPad: How to judge the value of a tool (or why multitasking has its place)


My brother and Tony Pittman were kind enough to allow me to join them for the latest Real Tech podcast where we discussed the iPad at great length. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I had reservations (and still have a few) about the iPad but by and large I am excited about it and looking forward to getting one. One criticism that has been leveled at the iPad and the iPhone/iPod Touch before it is that it lacks multitasking. On Real Tech 22 I argued that multitasking was overrated and not really necessary for most users of such devices. After a few twitter exchanges along those lines @jweaks pointed out a post on The Apple Blog that makes just that point, “Multitasking is Overrated.” I thought I would take just a few paragraphs to use multitasking as an example of how I believe any such device (or book, car, tool) should be assessed.

I have already talked about how I would use the iPad and why I think it will fit the bill for me. I came to that conclusion by doing two things in sequence. (1) I assessed my work habits and needs while on the road and (2) assessed the utility of the iPad (and the Kindle, you will recall I began by considering buying a Kindle). If 1 and 2 were fairly equivalent then I had a good fit and considerations would then begin relative to price, etc.

So let’s consider what the device is for. Tony was absolutely right that Steve J missed the mark with his comments about netbooks. The iPad should be firmly compared with the Kindle DX. So in spite of the Mighty Jobs’ reference (and with the personal conviction that for many the iPad may well be a functional replacement for a netbook), the iPad should be compared against the Kindle and other eBook readers. At the least it must be acknowledged that the iPad slots somewhere between a dedicated eBook reader and a fully functional notebook. With that in mind, and referring to my earlier post for a more detailed assessment, let me explain why I am not bothered by the lack of multitasking.

The iPad is designed and intended to allow the user focus upon a central task at any given moment. Yes, we are able to listen to iTunes while reading and replying to email (and I do believe Apple should open that up to Pandora, etc.), but if I am reading an article, watching a video, or writing a paper then I am focused upon those tasks. If  I want to switch out of Pages to check my email or Tweetie I can (and Tweetie remembers my state) and it switches very quickly on the iPhone. Word is that the iPad is even faster. (So even if we had multitasking would we really notice that much difference?) This is also a very portable device. Even at 9.7″ this is still a small screen and having multiple windows open would be awkward at best, intrusive at worst.

So it doesn’t have multitasking, do I need it? Not really. I haven’t missed it on the iPhone. We have push notifications so ESPN tells me when my teams have scored and Facebook could tell me when I receive a message, if I wanted that. And what do we find in phones that have multitasking? Interminable hangups for no discernible reason, programs slowing down to a halt, and memory issues like…I can’t remember what. (I personally experienced all of this on all my BlackBerrys, where it was nearly impossible to cleanly kill a running app and some would run no matter what you did. I had to remove the battery for a hard “reset” at least once a week, often once a day.)

Would I use multitasking if the iPhone and iPad had it? Maybe. I am not sure what more it would give me than I already have with the iPhone’s quick program launching, copy-paste (that was a HUGE omission when the iPhone first came out), and push notification.1

I go back to what is this device created to do? Don’t blame the tool for doing the job it was designed for well, but not doing the job that you wanted it to do (but for which it was not designed). That is like saying that my wife’s high heeled shoes are useless and not worth buying because I can barely get one nail into the wall before the heel breaks off. If I want to hang nails I need to get a hammer. When I want to do real production I will use a MacBook. When I want a light, slim device that allows me to consume content and create simple content, then the iPad is just the ticket for me. Of course it may not be what you need at all (see step #1).2

Finally, I want to make a very general assertion (and therefore open to challenge) that most of us are far more efficient when we are focused upon a single task. Sure, many of us listen to music while writing, for example, but having my email dock icon bounce up to tell me of a new email or have Growl notify me that someone mentioned me in a tweet does nothing but draw me away from the task at hand. A single task, a single screen, an immersive experience. Just the sort of thing that folks espousing “Zenware” are talking about and why Merlin Mann and others champion WriteRoom, “distraction free writing.” Maybe that is what the iPad will be for me, a tool that allows me to focus on the task at hand.

  1. My brother pointed out that creating a presentation from a text document requires going back and forth between apps, which is true, but you can import a doc into Keynote (something I assume the iPad version will allow) and I can trim from there. []
  2. And for all of these very same considerations, when I have serious research or audio/video creation to do I want to have multitasking. I need to have Accordance open so that I can reference a text while writing in another window, etc. But that is not the sort of thing I do 98% of the time that I am on the road. Different tools for different jobs. []

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