February 10, 2010 • Louie Mantia

When you’re on a desktop computer, your operating system has the ability to run multiple applications at the same time. This means an array of applications will sit side-by-side on a screen so you can (as people say) multitask.

Currently, I have an iChat window with David, a Text Edit window composing this blog post, and Twitterrific. With the greatest of ease, I can send a message to David, type another phrase in this text document, and read a tweet.

On an iPhone/iPad, the operating system only allows one application to run at a time. I can open BeeJiveIM to send a message to David, open the Notes application and type a bullet point, and open Twitterrific to read a tweet.

The fundamental difference here is that on a computer, your eyes switch from one application to another. You focus on a chat window, a text document, or tweets. It should go without saying—your eyes can never be in two places at once. On your iPhone or iPad, instead of switching between applications with your eyes, you manually close and open another application.

People seemingly want the ability to run two applications at the same time, even though they can’t truly focus on both at the same time. On iPhone, you can actually run two applications at once, though it’s limited which ones do. And it makes sense which ones you can run simultaneously.

The classic example, one played out in AT&T commercials lately, is that you can talk on the phone with someone and browse the web at the same time. This works because of a very simple reason: the Phone requires your ears’ attention, the web requires your eyes’ attention. Because these two applications require different sensory inputs, you can easily do these tasks simultaneously. Similarly, you can listen to iPod while you organize Calendar events.

The arguments regarding multitasking on the desktop/iPhone/iPad seem to be conflating two distinct definitions of the word multitask.

While a computer can simultaneously run two applications at once, this does not mean a human can perform tasks in both applications simultaneously. For example, you cannot type two different messages in two different windows at the same time. While you are able to easily switch to another chat window or tab, you are not actually performing both tasks at the same time. Similarly, you are not able to read a tweet and read an article in your RSS feed simultaneously.

If you’re with a friend in a busy coffee shop, and there’s a bunch of people talking, you have to filter out everyone else to focus on what your friend is saying. It’s really hard (if not impossible) to truly listen to two people talking at the same time. The same is true for your eyes. Try playing Super Mario Bros. while reading a book. That’s not going to work out so well. Your eyes are required in two locations. While impossible to give your full attention to multiple things, you can sacrifice and divide your attention.

The example my friend Ged gave me earlier regarding multitasking was that he is able to play Star Trek Online alongside Twitterrific, which allows him to read tweets while he plays the game. This is the product of switching between processes quickly and dividing your attention. The two actions that Ged is performing require slightly two different sensory inputs. He is using his eyes to read tweets in Twitterrific and his fingers (touch) to perform an action in Star Trek Online by tapping a key.

While it appears that Ged is actually performing two tasks at once, he’s not giving his full attention to the game (nor to Twitterrific). This is called continuous partial attention. The intent is to partially pay attention to multiple things in order to do two things at once.

This “type” of multitasking on your computer has the benefit of being able to kind of do two things at once, by sacrificing your ability to truly focus on either one. What Apple is doing with iPhone and iPad is different in that you must switch applications manually. Switching manually has its benefits too. It means that you’re able to focus on one application at a time, giving your full attention.

The iPhone or iPad can’t multitask, even if you can. And while your computer can multitask, you can’t. Either your attention is divided among a few things or it’s completely engulfed in one. I would like to note, however, that switching your eyes between applications is substantially quicker currently, but this may change in the future with a faster processor and an interface or gesture for switching applications without the use of the middleman (home screen).

Everyone works differently. Some people would rather divide their attention than completely focus. I think what Apple is trying to achieve with iPad is not to frustrate people who want to do lots of things at once, but to get you to focus on one thing at a time, which allows you to fully concentrate on whatever task.

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