Only Windows Gets Mobile Multitasking Right

Only Windows Gets Mobile Multitasking Right

It's time to take the scarlet letter off of Snap

This morning, I used the OneDrive app on my iPad mini to open a Word document in Apple Pages to reacquaint myself with productivity workflow, such as it is, on competing mobile platforms. Let's just say I found the experience lacking.

What's missing on all non-Microsoft platforms, as it turns out, is a formalized way to view at least two mobile apps side-by-side on screen. This is a feature that Microsoft added to Windows 8 and then improved dramatically in Windows 8.1, and while many desktop users scoff at its simplicity, it remains a key differentiator. Windows, as I've noted before, is unparalleled when it comes to productivity, even in the mobile world.

Android and iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) both support multitasking, of course, which is the ability to run multiple apps and services simultaneously and switch between them on the fly. But neither Android nor iOS support a formal, in-platform capability to display apps side-by-side or otherwise display two or more apps onscreen at the same time.

(Android users do have a few third party apps that will enable side-by-side apps on that platform, and Samsung includes a feature called Multi Windows Mode on its Android handsets and tablets, though it only works with some apps.)

And then there's Windows. When Microsoft introduced Windows 8 (and Windows RT, which is just a version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM hardware), the ability to run two apps side-by-side was among the features that many power users ridiculed. After all, Windows 1.0, which dates back to 1985, included this functionality, and Windows moved on to discretely floating application windows with Windows 2.0 in 1987. Side-by-side apps was considered a joke.

That was a mistake, one that was tied to our misgivings about Windows 8. This feature, called Snap, initially allowed a fairly limited form of side-by-side app usage in which one app occupied most of the onscreen area and a second "snapped" app occupied a thin, non-resizable area on the side. (You could, and still can, move this snapped area to the right or left edge of the screen.)

As initially envisioned, Snap was designed so that you could see two apps onscreen at once while you interacted with the primary app. The secondary app could be something you wish to monitor—email, weather, whatever—or something you read (IE, perhaps, or a Bing content app) while writing or otherwise interacting with the primary app. For developers, Snap was easy to support because the snapped display mode was a fixed size.

In Windows 8.1, Snap has been improved pretty dramatically. Now you can resize the snapped area somewhat arbitrarily to different sizes—assuming the app is written for Windows 8.1, that is—and if you have the right combination of screen size and pixel count you can display three (or more) apps side-by-side, not just two. I don't personally see a need for multiple columnar apps per se, but the ability to evenly snap two apps onscreen is actually pretty excellent.

Xbox Music (left) and Facebook (right) using Snap in Windows 8.1

It's also really productive. I can work in a Word document while viewing a web page in IE, much as I do on the desktop. I can record a podcast in Skype on one side while I access the show notes in OneNote on the other. Brilliant.

In our zeal to gather the torches and storm the Microsoft castle, we as power users have obviously lost sight of the big picture in some ways. And Snap is a good example: It may seem silly compared to the multitasking capabilities on the desktop, but the truth is that normal people find that complex and unnecessary anyway. And compared to multitasking on the leading mobile platforms, Android and iOS, this new Windows stuff is actually quite a bit better. Ultimately, that's the more important distinction, and one we should be trumpeting, not burning down.

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