Multitasking is evil – Leaving the desktop metaphore behind…

Written by
Matthias Wagler
11 February 2010

Due to lots of interesting stuff to do and heavy multitasking I haven’t had the time recently to sit down and write. But thankx to an application called OmmWriter I managed to escape the evil world of multitasking and to write this little article here exactly about this topic. These are my thoughts on multitaksing, simplification and their relationship to Apple’s latest product.

1. People complaining

Reading through the Future Shock article by Fraser Spiers I started asking myself why people are complaining about the lack of multitasking on the iPad? I have to admit that I’ve been running with this pack. But after living on an Android Phone for about a year now, after using Single-Task-Oriented Software like WriteRoom, Ommwriter, etc. I changed my mind. So maybe the lack of multitasking is one of the most brilliant features of the iPad.

2. A little bit of history

For years we’ve been complaining about the desktop metaphore (multiple windows, folder based file system, task bar, add crazy stuff here) and how hard it is for ‘normal’ people to understand. These symbols and metaphors might have been important in the early days of computing but the world has changed a bit since then.

I remember reading the book Interface Culture by Steven Johnson back in 1999 where he actually talked about the same topic: Why are we still bound to folders and the desktop? Most kids don’t even know what a folder is. But it seemed like the computer industry didn’t have the guts to get rid of it, to get rid of complexity, to get rid of features. For years we’ve been ‘oppressed’ by managing multiple tasks and windows simultainiously. Now we’ve been given the chance to leave that behind. And how do we react? We complain about it.

3. How Apple managed to leave the desktop behind

Apple has managed to do an incredible thing. We’ve constantly been pushed away from the desktop without noticing it. Starting for example with applications like iPhoto. It lets us forget about the file system and helps us to organize photos in a human way. Similar things happened to music and the iPod. The next important step was the rollout of a phone with a Single-Task-Oriented Interface which introduced  the idea of this kind of ‘reduced’ environment (based on small widgets/apps). Now this ecosystem is being expanded to the iPad. I’m not saying that this is the most revolutionary product ever. But it’s a another step in a constant move of innovation and simplification. A move away from multitasking, away from the desktop.

Desktop vs. Widget

“Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together.”
– The Unix Philosophy (via mnmal)

Let’s sum this up and get outta here…

So I guess this in a important step for people getting back the control over technology. It’s about giving people less options but more control over their lifes.


09 April 2010

:-) Yes you're right. But to me that's not a fundamental change of the main concept. After all the OS is still a single screen focused operating system. So this is not a total game changer cause what's really important to me: The focus on one task at a time (Yes, Audio in the back I know!).
08 April 2010

Apple figured out today that multitasking is not evil... ( wishes!
29 March 2010

I highly recommend to read this article by Craig Mod with some additional thoughts on this topic: "Desktop OSes aren’t optimized for concentration"(via @uleria)
04 March 2010

Anyways, it's not the thing what is more "human" or easier. It's a thing of efficiency. Wanna see how you use Photoshop reasonable on an iPad, compared with a computer with mouse and keyboard...Same thing with "touchscreen-keyboard" and keyboard with keys, you will never type that fast on the first one. And this has nothing to do with training.
17 February 2010

I’m with @Chad and @Graham :)
17 February 2010

@Matthias: Thanks! You are right, I'm the kind of person sited in my desktop working many hours/day doing lots of different tasks with different tools at the same time. And that is not bad at all.Maybe the main problem is how the iPad really fits in the halfway (if there is one) between mobile devices (ie. iPhone) and work computers (ie. iMac/iBook) even for power users (as us) and light users.Or maybe the question is who really needs this kind of device (powerful, pretty, gorgeous display, innovative, no ports/extensions, no multitasking, no Flash, 500% iTunes Store).I pass for now, I still waiting (and imaginary working) for something that looks like the iPad but more significant and useful for a wider audience, from the perspective of standards, open platforms and most important, that gives you the power to choose or build your own level/style of work and develop your skills in every aspect of your life in front of a device to build a special bond between the world and you.The iPhone is very close to this (in therms of approach, not solution), I'm not sure about the iPad :(P.D. Agrh, it's very hard to talk about this kind of things opening a clear path between industry commercial interests, behaviors, personal interests, expectations, real/imaginary environments... *Sighs* Maybe the solution is somewhere around us :)
17 February 2010

I'm with @Chad Vavra - At any given moment, I have 20+ tabbed browser windows open, IM, email, several twitter gadgets, iTunes, several text docs, and more open. Except for maybe memory issues, it's not a problem. Expose on the Mac makes it extremely easy to manage. I leave my machine on all the time, so these windows become a trail of my daily activity. I switch rapidly through tasks as the day progresses, moving from one to the next as relevant information comes up. I need to be able to access this all at once or I cannot organize my daily activity organically. If I don't get back to something, it's there already for when I eventually do... I can track my progress instead of losing things in a one-by-one shuffle. While I use my iPhone in bed, I find constantly having to move in and out of apps to do multiple things very annoying. I can only chat OR read a website OR check my mail. Multitasking is not evil, it's a part of life.
17 February 2010

Thankx Cesar and Chad! Great input. However I still think that we as people who live on our laptops tend to think that this might be the only way to work, play, etc. But I don't think that all of us need to be bothered with the complexity of a modern operating systems booting at 2 minutes.@Chad: The problem is that you still need to sync your ipod. :-) In my 'ideal' future my music gets synced between all my devices over the net without me ever noticing it. I don't want to be bothered with these kind of details.@Fabse: Great to hear from you. Hope you're having a good time in Denmark!
17 February 2010

My response:
16 February 2010

Simplification is the holy grail in UX, usability and every new topic related with interfaces and new media, but I consider it as a medium, not an objective.I agree that the desktop metaphor is outdated, but the thing is not to trow it away... The thing is how to make it really useful, and now is barely limited to the OS graphical files organization interface...Maybe if the applications are designed in a better way to take more benefits from the desktop metaphor...One good example (not the best) is iTunes, that keeps consistently organized your media library in the application AND in your OS Finder/Explorer...One bad example is maybe you Mail... There is not a consistent relationship between your Mail application and the files and folders in your OS...At the end, regardless of this little paradigm, I believe that there is not one unique solution, it seems that the holy grail of simplicity is far away than we expected, but for god sake... We are now in 2010, light years from the first multitasking OS, we are not dealing with IRQs anymore and we live in a world that requires sometimes or always (it depends of your thinking model and job/hobbies/interests...) perform multiple tasks at the same time (one example between many: look for a contact info while you have a phone call, even a first generation Nokia performs this simple task...).If I'm wrong, please someone let me know to start closing my tabs in Firefox and open one page at a time, delete my bookmarks in Delicious, regroup my contacts and maybe burn some books over my desktop that sometimes I use as consult or even as fly swatter.Please excuse my bad english and thank you to open this space to talk about this :)
16 February 2010

I think the choice of the best desktop metaphor is not a question of the physical organization of files, because these files are organized in a completely different way on your hdd than shown in your file browser. Furthermore I think that digital file sorting is up to more than displaying paper sorted in folders, by e.g. semantic tagging.Although I haven't had the chance to lay hands on the iPad, I still tend to be in favour of the multitasking thing. I am able to relate that multitasking might not be the best metaphor for a small device like a smartphone. But I think it is probably a better user experience to be able to play another song of my iTunes playlist along the way (lets stick to apple in this case) while I keep the focus on the real work instead of closing & starting apps. Therefore I think it depends on the scope of application what kind of desktop metaphor to chose - which is in the case of the iPad still written in the stars - at least in my opinion.
12 February 2010

Hey Kevin! Good to read you here. Thanks for raising this point about Apple. Of course their attitude seems a little ambiguous & biased, especially in the light of recent announcements, e.g. resistance to support flash on iPad/iPhone etc... I totally agree. However, I guess from their perspective, their underlying (marketing & product) strategy is also completely comprehensible. Trying to create emotional as well as functional bonds to their products is what every company tries to achieve. This might not be as innovative as some of the apple interfaces/products themselves have been, not to mention open. But fair enough. That's the system I guess.What Apple is really good at, and this is probably why they have been mentioned in this post, is their focus on the user's experience – on a hardware, software and service level. Being in charge of all three helps them to facilitate and push different products into the broader market. They were talking app-store, multi-touch and widgets, when other companies were still thinking in ring-tone services and T9-typing. Almost in every project we're involved in these days, no matter what context, Apple's design and user experience strategy sooner or later gets mentioned by the client. Always. That is exactly what I credit them: they made UX design graspable and acceptable to a broader public, as something that can make the difference. A paradigm shift if you will.To be honest, I am not as enthusiastic about them as this might sound. But i believe re-evaluations of more traditional forms of interfaces, in favour of - say - single-task oriented software, are more likely to happen on a broader scale now that someone like Apple has been pushing things forward. And although I sensed a slight impression of "ageing dictator" when watching the latest keynote, I believe there will always be the competitors'/public strive for opening things up. We're not living on islands, not even in Cupertino.
12 February 2010

I really had the user interface in mind when I wrote the post. But I agree on your opinion about very closed business model of Apple. As much as I appreciate their advancement in user interface design I doubt this kind of closed world approach.They've been very 'good' at keeping people inside 'their world'. But I think the rest of the world will force them to open up. The same thing happened to their music store. As soon as a better an open alternative (mp3 on Amazon) they had to follow this road. The same happenend to Microsoft with their Office world.
11 February 2010

Though I agree the desktop "metaphor" may be dated, and that simplicity may be the new black, and that apple is no doubt leading the pack, I'm a little frightened by your summary. To me it seems the exact opposite, apple's approach is actually preventing people from having any control over their files (and their organisational/physical/reproduction/transfer structure) unless it is through one of their (paid or not) apps. It places another layer of interface between the user and their content and allows for (almost) only one way of doing things with this content...sounds more like big brother to me.

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