iOS 6: Is it time for Apple to revamp the multitasking fast app switcher?
At Macworld 2007 Steve Jobs showed off mobile Safari’s Page switching interface, but despite the operating system as a whole crying out for similar treatment, to this day Pages haven’t expanded beyond Safari. At the iOS 4 event in the spring of 2010, the iPhone finally got 3rd party multitasking and a fast app switcher interface, but rather than an Exposé-esque grid interface, it stayed locked to the Dock.
And as far as showing currently open apps, making those apps as visually distinguishable as possible, and making them as fast as possible to switch between, that’s where iOS remained. Even on the iPad’s far larger screen.
Is it time for something more?
Desktop multitasking and windowing
Over the years, desktop operating systems have evolved various ways of handling multitasking, app switching interfaces. OS X on the Mac alone has gone through various incarnations of the NeXT-derived Dock (and stacks, and glowing lights beneath the apps), Exposé and Mission Control, and the Windows-derived CMD + Tab.
OS X 10.7 Lion CMD + Tab app switcher, left, and app and window visualizer and switcher, Mission Control, right.
Mobile is both more recent and far more resource constrained than desktop — less power, less processor, less screen real-estate. So, mobile has evolved different methods of showing, identifying, and switching apps.
While these things all existed well before the iPhone, highly visual, design-centric interfaces were far less common. I’m sure someone will tell me Symbian had the best multi-object mobile interface imaginable back in 1812. Or Maemo/Meego. Or some Windows Mobile launcher. I’ll gladly take their word for it too. For the purposes of this post, however, we’re going to start in 2007 and work our way forward through current, popular operating systems.
iOS Safari Pages
The original iPhone had excellent multitasking — it could fade music out to take a call, keep the call going while loading web sites or email, and fade music back in without missing a beat. Only certain specific, built-in apps could multitask, however, and since there were no App Store apps back then, no visualization or fast app switching were required.
Even in 2007 however, Safari did have to deal with multiple objects — websites.
Desktop Safari has tabs, but Apple chose not to use them on the much, much smaller iPhone screen. The Music (previously iPod) app has CoverFlow in landscape mode. Again, Apple chose not to use it for mobile Safari.
Instead they went with Pages — a horizontal list, visually identifiable by thumbnails, and easy to switch between via scrolling and tapping. (It’s possible this type of interface was used on a mobile device prior to the iPhone, but I’m not familiar with one if so.)
While Apple used the more visually dynamic CoverFlow interface for iPod/Music, left, they used the more visually clear Pages interface for Safari, right.
From any one Page, tapping the Pages button invoked the Pages interface. While the order of Pages can’t be re-arranged, tapping the red X icon at the top left of a Page closed the Page.
When Apple introduced the App Store with iOS 2 (then iPhone OS 2) in 2008, they didn’t allow any 3rd party background tasks, and so didn’t need any lists, visualization, or fast switching. (And wouldn’t until iOS 4 in 2010.)
But that doesn’t mean mobile multi-object interfaces stood still, or that the Pages metaphor remained limited to the web rather than the os…
webOS Cards (and Stacks)
The original Palm Pre and its webOS operating system debuted at CES 2009 and was shown off by former Apple executive, Jon Rubenstein. It was the most impressive mobile product introduction since the iPhone in 2007, in part because Palm seemed to specifically target things the iPhone wouldn’t, or couldn’t yet do. One of those was system-wide multitasking, and the way they handled it was by making Apple’s Safari Pages metaphor system-wide.
Called Cards, the early implementations showed one app or window (e.g. a website or email) in very similar fashion to Safari Pages. Instead of tapping a button, however, a less discoverable but more elegant swipe gesture “shrank” the current window into a Card and switched to the horizontally scrollable thumbnail view. You could also, very naturally, touch and flick a Card away to close an app or window.
The original webOS Cards interface on the left, and the post-webOS 2.0 Stacks grouping on the right.
In the original version, you could even shrink the cards down smaller to see more open apps and windows at one time. (Greater immediate information density.)
It worked wonderfully.
Palm later expanded the Cards visualization beyond what Apple did with Safari Pages by introducing Stacks in webOS 2.0.
Stacks allows you to group Cards together into sets of similar apps, or apps for specific tasks, or any which way you want to group them. It slightly reduces visibility (because apps or windows can be harder to see if underneath other apps), but increased speed because the distance between apps you commonly used together could be made much smaller.
In short, it works even more wonderfully. (Especially scaled up on the TouchPad running webOS 3.0)
Cards and Stacks work especially well on the larger, iPad-sized, TouchPad screen.
When Apple did enable limited background tasks for App Store apps in 2010, however, they didn’t go with the Pages or Cards metaphor. They went for something decidedly different.
iOS fast app switcher
The iPad version of Safari, which debuted in the spring of 2010, didn’t use a horizontally scrolling set of thumbnails at all but, thanks to the larger screen, showed them all that once in a grid view. When iOS 5 was released in the fall of 2011, the grid was gone as well, and a tab interface, identical to desktop Safari, took its place.
iOS 3.2 Safari showed Pages in a grid, left. iOS 5 Safari witched to a tab interface like desktop Safari.
Pages stayed in Safari on the iPhone, but wouldn’t expand OS-wide. Apple did, apparently, experiment with something like the original iPad Pages grid, or the OS X Exposé interface, in iOS 4 but ultimately decided agains it.
Instead, to show open apps, to make them more easily, visually identifiable, and to enable faster switching between them, Apple went back to the Dock. Or rather, went under it.
With a double click of the Home button, the active screen would face and lift up, reveal a background Dock, and show open apps as a horizontally scrollable set of app icons in reverse chronological order. Tap an app, and with a carousel-like flourish, the current app swings around to the back and the selected one swing to the front.
After apparently experimenting with, and deciding against an interface closer to the original iPad Pages grid or OS X Exposé (with Spotlight snuck in on top), Apple went with a more CMD + Tab style dock interface.
This configuration shows more apps, and makes each app more immediately identifiable than Safari Pages. Four apps is more than the one central Page, and the two Page edges on either side. Also, icons are typically faster to differentiate than thumbnails. Their information density is lower, however, so while you can tell what app it is, there’s nothing to show what state the app is in. (In iOS, with the exception of Calendar, all the icons are static as well, further lowering information density.)
If the tasks you are doing are chronologically proximate, the switching is fast. Otherwise you need to swipe horizontally through a variable amount of Docks to get to the app you want, which in some cases can be slower than using the regular Home screen app launcher (which can be grouped by task.)
When in fast app switcher mode, roughly 80% of the iPhone screen (and more of the iPad screen) is not used. This brings focus — similar to the Alt/CMD + Tab desktop UI — but comes at the expense of potentially better visualization.
Also, apps in the fast app switcher can’t be re-arranged, but by tapping and holding, they will go into “jiggly” mode and can be closed by tapping the X icon at the top left.
With iOS 4.3, Apple experimented with gesture-based fast app switching on the iPad, and made it official in iOS 5. With gesture-only interfaces, while switching can be fast (if constrained to reverse chronological order), they offer no visualization what-so-ever. You can only tell which apps are open by going through them all. (Which is likely why Apple integrated them into the existing fast app switcher and Home screen app launcher interfaces.)
And so it remains, more CMD + Tab than Exposé or Mission Control, more identifiable than informational. A utility more than an experience.
Google Android embraced 3rd party background processes and task switching early on in its development. Between Android versions, and original device manufacturers (ODMs) like HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Blur, and Samsung’s TouchWiz, there have been quite a few different implementations.
The current version, the one used in Android 4.x Ice Cream Sandwich, was made with Matias Duarte, formerly lead designer of webOS at Palm, at the helm. So, it’s no coincidence Android has taken a webOS-like approach to app switching — albeit at a 90 degree angle. (You scroll vertically instead of horizontally.)
Old school Android app switcher on the left. Android 4.x Ice Cream Sandwich task switcher on the right.
The advantage of Android’s approach is that, if you don’t like one version of task switching, you can simply choose another device, or sometimes another ROM that implements it differently.
BlackBerry PlayBook OS cards
BlackBerry’s PlayBook OS borrowed heavily from Palm’s OS-wide Card implementation of Apple’s Safari-bound Pages interface was first seen in late 2010 and released in Spring 2011.
BlackBerry's PlayBook puts webOS-style cards on top of app launcher-style icons.
The 7-inch screen, larger than a phone but smaller than a 9.7-inch tablet, combined with the real-time nature of the QNX underpinnings, makes for similarly wonderful visualization. Because of that, it has all the advantages of webOS’ card metaphor.
Windows Phone 7.5 Mango cards
Microsoft’s original smartphone operating system, Windows Mobile, had robust multitasking but an antiquated user interface. Windows Phone launched in late 2010 with the elegant, “digitally authentic” Metro UI, but initially lacked 3rd-party multitasking. That changed with Windows Phone 7.5 Mango in the summer of 2011, with the re-introduction of much more limited multitasking to Microsoft’s mobile phone platform.
Windows Mobile 6.1 task manager, left, and Windows Phone 7.5 app switcher, right.
And, while many elements of Metro were fresh and different from other mobile operating systems, Microsoft chose to go with a highly constrained version of the now very familiar, almost commonplace Pages/Cards, horizontally scrolling thumbnail metaphor for fast app switching.
BlackBerry 10 grid
BlackBerry 10, expected to ship in the fall of 2012, doesn’t keep the card metaphor but switches to a grid view for app thumbnails. You get to see 4 at first, and can swipe down to 4 more. You can also swipe immediately into app launcher, or notifications and messages, thanks to the gesture-centric user experience.
Spatially, the BlackBerry 10 open app grid interface is a gesture to the right of the app launcher and to the left of the messages screen (with notifications transitionally intermediating the latter).
It’s a very slick implementation, with the goal of optimizing one-handed ease of use on larger touchscreen phones.
Options for and iOS 6 fast app switching
The most obvious options for iOS 6 fast app switching are:
- Keep the current fast app switching interface
- Changing to the now-common Pages/Cards-style interface
- Changing to am Exposé/grid-style interface
- Changing to something new and better
Keeping the fast app switcher does nothing to move the platform or mobile interface forward. For good or for ill, it keeps Apple and iOS exactly where they are, even as the rest of the industry is providing more informationally and experientially rich task-switching interfaces.
Apple might well prefer this option. It’s familiar, which is a feature, and it’s more or less hidden away unless you go looking for it. That keeps things simple for non-power users.
Changing to a Pages/Cars interface loses some of the immediate recognizability of icons, but gains the additional inform density of thumbnails. It brings Apple and iOS up to par with most of the rest of the mobile platforms, but does nothing to leapfrog them.
Apple could claim they’re merely extending Safari Pages, and use that claim to try and sidestep charges they’re copying webOS and others (especially if they don’t do Stacks, though Apple really didn’t seem to care about charges they copied Android for Notification Center).
Since it would work like Safari Pages, it would be consistent on the iPhone (though not iPad). Apple eschewed that consistency in favor of keeping consistent with the Dock, however, would they go back to it now? Where would the current media control widgets go if they did?
A simple Pages/Cards-style app switcher, left, and a kitchen sync version with Spotlight and widgets, right.
Changing to an Exposé/grid interface is similar to changing to a Pages/Cards interface, though it would initially fit more thumbnails onto a single screen than a horizontally scrolling line does. (It would require scrolling to see subsequent screens of additional thumbnails.) The more thumbnails per screen, however, the smaller and harder to discern each one becomes. Red X icons for closing apps could be persistent, like in Pages, or could require the thumbnails to be putty in “jiggly” mode first, which could also enable re-arrangement.
Apple would get pretty much the same benefits, and face the same drawbacks, of Cards/Pages. They abandoned the grid for iPad Safari in favor of tabs and chose not to go this way for app switching before iOS 4 even hit beta, however, so, again, would they revisit it now?
Again, a simple 4 tile Exposé-style app switcher, left, and a 9 tile app switcher with Spotlight, right.
Changing to something new and better is a huge interface challenge. Things like Pages/Cards and Exposé/grids become standards because they work, and they make sense. And coming up with newer and better is difficult. Concept videos and interfaces for movies like Iron Man are one thing. Nailing real world usage for hundreds of millions of users is quite another.
Apple does, however, have some of the best mobile interface designers on the planet, and a track record of coming up with great design solutions. It would have to really be better than the current fast app switcher, provide more information, recognizability, and accessibility, and work great with one hand (especially if they go to a larger, 4-inch, 16:9 screen as current rumors suggest). Could Apple do it? Should they?
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