Multi-Tasking, Productivity, and the iPad

The complaints about the lack of background apps never ends. It’s surprising really, you’d think everyone would have gotten it out of their system the first time Apple released a product that didn’t allow you to run multiple apps at once. And guess what? The iPhone and iPod touch are both wildly successful.

The argument against the iPad usually starts by mentioning that it is pitched to replace a netbook, sitting between the cell phone and laptop. Then the writer usually goes on and on about how they can’t imagine being able to get anything done on a device that doesn’t allow you to run two things at once. The argument is often finished off by mentioning the software keyboard.

We’ve had the iPhone’s keyboard for two and a half years, it works just fine, get over it. The iPad keyboard will be different, but given enough time (just like the iPhone) you’ll get used to it and speed and accuracy will inevitably increase.

Now on to the multi-tasking issue. I hate to break it to you but the way to really get stuff done is to do one thing at a time. Why do you think applications like Spirited Away, Doodim, and WriteRoom exist? Their developers and users understand that the best way to actually get things done on a computer is to get rid of all the distractions.

Think about it, I mean really think about it, aside from all the “walk and chew gum scenarios” when are you actually productive at doing two things at once? Your not. Doing your best work requires focus, the iPad will help you do that.

Even the majority of scenarios brought up in favor of multi-tasking are moot, though. If you want to have your email client open in the background, you don’t have to, just set Mail to check for new email every 15 minutes. If you want to have an IM client open at all times, enable push notifications. If you want to listen to music, open the iPod app and hit play.

The best argument I’ve heard in favor of Apple allowing background apps has been the idea of running a third-party music app while using another application. This scenario is probably the only valid one I’ve heard. If you use a service like Rhapsody, it would be nice to listen to that music on the iPad and still be able to use other applications. I’m still convinced that Apple will debut a subscription service some time in the future but in the mean time this still isn’t a problem. Apple fully expects you to have your iPhone or another handset with you when using the iPad. You can’t listen to Rhapsody on the iPad while browsing the web on the same device but it doesn’t matter because you can listen to that same content on your iPhone while browsing the web on the iPad.

Another good argument in favor of multi-tasking is put best by Milind Alvares on Smoking Apples:

On a desktop computer, I would have a Safari web page open in one window, and floating beneath or beside it, is a TextEdit window. I can research multiple articles using different tabs, all the time copying stuff over to TextEdit for my research.

Milind brings up the fact that you can jump between applications from the home screen, pointing out that most applications save state when the home button is pressed. But, it’s also worth mentioning that Mobile Safari allows you to have 8 windows open at once, one of those could be a text editor in the form of a web app.

Regardless of whether you “need” to be able to multi-task, how do you plan to actually get anything done with all these distractions and interruptions? All those push notifications and new mail alerts aren’t helping your productivity. I have my “Fetch New Data” setting set to manual and it has been that way for two years. I want to know if I have new email when I check it, not when I’m browsing the web, or waiting in line at the bank, or shopping at the grocery store. I’ll check it when I have time to deal with it.

But beyond my email settings, I have been spending a large portion of my time with computers trying to get rid of all the excess stuff, so that I can actually do what I sat down in front of the desk to do. I suggest that everyone tries this at some point in their life. After just a short period of time, you’ll be amazed at how little you miss those alert tones and notifications. And when you turn all that stuff back on, you might just realize that they’re just plain annoying.

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