Windows Phone 7 and Thoughts on Multitasking

It’s rumored that Windows Mobile/Phone 7 will be shown to the public for the first time this coming Monday, February 15, 2010 at Mobile World Congress. Based on the comments by executives, such as Robbie Bach, and some pretty specific rumors out of the Windows Mobile camp, it’s not a huge stretch to expect something about the oft-delayed platform to be presented.

Windows PhoneOne point above all else in those rumors that has many staunch Windows Mobile users riled up: no multitasking. I’d like to make a few comments on the matter. Note that the following is not based on my knowledge of the real thing, but simply my thoughts and opinions.

In a smartphone platform, multitasking is not needed for the vast majority. Attempting to do multiple things at once on a smartphone is implicitly limited by the screen real estate. Applications need to take up the entire display (I don’t consider widgets ‘applications’). The scenarios in which one uses a smartphone are distinctly different from a PC, Mac, or arguably, an iPad, where multitasking would be more useful.

What most people want, whether they can verbalize it or not, is session state persistence and background notifications. 95% of the time, that application you want to ‘minimize’ will simply sit in the background, doing nothing except consuming valuable resources. Instead, close the application, save its state, and provide a way for notifications to/from that application to be bubbled up in the operating system. The next time you open that application, it will return from its cryostasis, ready to pick up where you left off.

For example, you open up the email client, read an email from a friend that includes a link to a restaurant website. You click that link, closing the email client, while at the same time opening the browser. The page loads and you decide you want to take a look at where it is on a map. You copy the address and open up a Google Maps application, closing the browser. You paste the address and pan around, getting your bearings. Satisfied, you reopen the browser and find it at the same place on the website you just visited. You don’t even notice that the browser process was terminated. You peruse the menu for the evening and decide to reply to your friend, confirming a reservation. You open up the email client, and you’re back at the email you read to start the scenario. None of this requires ‘multitasking’ support, simply session state persistence.

The key is providing a level of transparency to the user. The operating system may be starting and terminating processes, but as long as the experience of managing multiple applications’ interactions is as the user expects, there is no need for multitasking to accomplish these tasks. Yes, this puts a bit more responsibility on the application developer’s shoulder. The developer must consider session data and how to best store it for their application.

With all that said, I’m certain there will be cursory ‘multitasking’ provided by the operating system, despite the rumors. Some core services, such as music and phone, should be able to run alongside other applications, much like what is possible with the iPhone.

Windows Mobile task manager
No one wants to deal with this.
Apple absolutely had it right when they introduced one of the first no-multitasking mobile operating systems with the iPhone OS. However, they did not add background notifications until several iterations later, which was a bummer. I believe the benefits achieved by removing multitasking on the smartphone platform outweighs the 0.1% power-user scenario, where multitasking might actually be useful. For most people, managing a process list is out of their comfort zone. Applications would simply pile up in the background, with users having little experience with memory management. It would simply appear as though performance were vanishing for no reason. The geeks can whine as much as they like, but at some point or another, they’ll need to realize that mass market success cannot be achieved by catering to their needs alone. I’ve gone through a highly technical computer engineering degree, but I know that when designing features, they cannot be for users like me. Read The Inmates are Running the Asylum if you want to know what designing for programmers and engineers means to the rest of the world.

Windows Mobile/Phone 7 is a well-kept secret even within Microsoft. The intranet portals are walled off from non-team employees. Furthermore, little concrete information is disseminated outside the walls of the Studios. I’m super excited to see what the team had accomplished since my time at Microsoft. They know that this is probably the last chance for them to create something that is at least on par with the best of the best out there. Based on my interactions with the people working on the project and the very different  design mentality within the team, I’m excited about the prospects.

In three days, everyone will see what’s been cooking.


2 Replies to “Windows Phone 7 and Thoughts on Multitasking”

  1. TL DR…

    I’d like to read your thoughts on the BlackBerry’s multitasking capabilities and limitations when you get around to it. I find it’s fairly responsive even while I am tasking around several apps – not including the ‘always-open’ ones in the task switcher.

  2. I have never been a fan of Windows mobile and find the interface a little cumbersome but it will be interesting to get a feel for this version.

    I have been using a Blackberry for years and every time I try something different, I always end up going right back to the Blackberry. The Google Apps integration is flawless.

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