Split-screen iOS 8 multi-tasking underscores ‘split thinking’ about tablets

Craig Grannell explores what split-screen might mean for iOS, and whether it could lead to a divide in the iPad line
OS Experience, a Cydia app that adds split-screen multitasking to iPad

The latest iOS rumour mill churn concerns split-screen multitasking in iOS 8.

According to reports from typically vague sources, iOS will follow in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Windows 8, enabling you to view apps two-up in landscape. You could then run a browser alongside Twitter, Excel alongside Mail, or a Flappy Bird clone alongside the original Flappy Bird, if you happen to hate yourself.

Predictably, a glance online suggests split-screen would be the best/worst thing that Apple could ever do regarding the iPad, and would ensure its continued success/abrupt and violent failure. It’s Schrödinger’s feature: until the box is opened, we won’t know whether we’ll be greeted by a purring, happy iPad, or one that needs to be hastily buried in a lead box and forgotten about forever.

Stay focused

iPad Air and iPad mini

I’ve always loved the sense of focus an iPad brings. The device ‘becomes’ the app that’s running, rather than apps merely being a small window into a world that’s fighting with others for attention. With Korg Gadget, my iPad is a recording studio; with Byword, it is a typewriter; with Pinball Arcade, it is a very good reminder how truly terrible I am at pinball. I’m fond of how iOS locks out everything but what I’m supposed to be focussing on, to the point it irks when some stupid game or other interrupts me with a banal Notification Center alert.

That said, I’m aware many people are used to and prefer a more traditional way of working and thinking, on a PC; it’s also undeniable certain tasks are complicated by the stubborn refusal of iOS to allow you to work with more than one app at once. There is a four-finger swipe gesture, for quickly flicking back and forth between apps, but it’s not widely known and it’s fiddlier than drag and drop for copying, or glancing at reference material while working on a document.

These latest rumours and the reasonable success Microsoft has had with its own split-screen system suggest that Apple could cater to all: those people who don’t want split-screen could avoid it and any associated complexity (assuming iOS isn’t too eager to ‘snap’ apps to half the screen), and pro-oriented users could two-up apps to their heart’s content.

A small problem

But concerns remain. iOS is already fiddly when it comes to complex interactions such as copy and paste; and OS Experience, a jailbreak hack for split-screen looks hideous from a user-experience standpoint – Apple would have to provide something considerably superior. Even then, there’s the question of screen-space. Even if Apple manages to nail interactions and gestures surrounding split-screen, a standard iPad carved in half would provide roughly iPhone-screen-size windows for apps, and this would be greatly reduced when the on-screen keyboard is active.

This snag dovetails with rumours about an iPad Pro – a large-screened sibling to the current line – and also that split-screen wouldn’t be available on the smaller iPad mini. The former would be more suited to running multiple apps, while the latter would be blocked from doing so. Yet this would derail Apple’s existing “just the same, but smaller” thinking for the iPad mini, fragment the ecosystem, and cause problems for developers wanting to support the new view and rigorously test across the entire iPad line. However, such a shift would hardly be unprecedented for Apple – the iPod, remember, started out as a single model, and the line evolved as the needs of those buying it changed.

Back to the Mac

If this rumour turns out to be true, Apple’s management of the entire process must be as close to flawless as possible, in order to not just be left with a mess: the UI needs to be intuitive and responsive; fragmentation across the line needs to be minimised; and developers need to be given as much assistance as necessary to ensure enough apps very quickly support split-screen.

It could also do with being something that goes ‘back to the Mac’ – OS X is a system that right now could desperately do with a split-screen mode, yet its window management dances between iOS-style full-screen and 1980s-oriented ‘spray windows everywhere’; here’s hoping that in itself isn’t an omen!

READ MORE: iPad is getting split-screen multitasking with iOS 8, reports say