Even before I read Federico Viticci’s excellent article on iOS 9’s multitasking1 features, I was thinking about how Slide Over and Split View will change the way people use the iPad and how they relate to analogous features in the early Macintosh OS. After reading it, I’m thinking about how they’ll affect me.

The original Mac was, like the iPad, fundamentally a single-tasking machine, but it did have one quasi-multitasking feature inherited from the Lisa: desk accessories. Of Apple’s original desk accessories, I’d say only the Note Pad, Calculator, and Scrapbook were productivity tools, but they were very helpful in allowing you to do one type of work while another type of application was in control of the screen. Later on, third-party DAs like the miniWRITER2 and MockWrite text editors, the MockPaint graphics program, and a terminal emulator whose name escapes me allowed you to get more serious work done in a sort of multitasking simulacrum.

Mac desk accessories

Image from Genk

In 1985, Andy Herzfeld’s Switcher came on the scene. It wasn’t true multitasking either, but boy was it useful. I wrote my thesis on a Fat Mac using Switcher with MacWrite in one screen and MacDraw in another. By flipping back and forth between the two I could put together drawings and equations and drop them quickly into the text.


Image from Ken Wessen

A couple of years later came the MultiFinder, which had essentially the same multitasking interface as today’s OS X Finder (although it was very different under the hood). But as the capability of the Mac interface increased, its simplicity and directness decreased. Desk accessories were easy to understand because they were small and never took over the menu bar.3 The Switcher was essentially just like running several single-tasking Macs; you switched from one application to another, but the current application always had control of the entire screen. With the MultiFinder—first as an option, then as the standard interface—several applications could be on the screen at the same time, which led, and still leads, to confusion among new and casual users. Hell, even old hands occasionally lose track of which application is active.

When the iPad came out, it was deja vu all over again. One screen, one app. Before the end of 2010, iOS 4 provided the Switcher-like multitasking bar and the ability to quickly shift from one app to another. Still only one app on the screen at a time, though. And while the multitasking bar has grown from a strip of icons into a set of screenshots, it’s still more like the Switcher than the MultiFinder.

Until iOS 9. This fall, the iPad will graduate to an interface that can show two apps at a time. As important, I think, is the way multitasking is being handled. Unlike Mac users, iPad users won’t be dumped immediately into a multitasking environment. Those who prefer to use and see only one app at a time can continue to do so—the multitasking interface will stay out of their way and won’t confuse them.

But for those who need to refer to one app while working in another, Slide Over and (especially) Split View will be a godsend. And it’s seemingly eliminated one of the biggest problems with using Mac-like multitasking environments: window management. There are no windows in Split View, there are only parts of the screen, with one part wholly given over to one app and another part wholly given over to another. There’s no overlap and there’s no Desktop peeking out from behind. The only thing the user has to think about is the position of the dividing line between the two apps.

iOS 9 Split View

Image from Apple

I’m not suggesting this is a practical interface for a 27″ screen, but imagine how much easier it would be to explain computers to your mom if this was the most complicated screen she’d ever have to deal with.

But iOS 9 does add a complication for me. My MacBook Air is getting a little long in the tooth and I’ve been thinking about replacing it near the end of the year. My expectation was that I’d get a 13″ MacBook Pro, but now I’m wondering—as I did in 2010 when I bought the Air—whether an iPad would fit my needs. Five years ago, the answer was no. Five months from now, the answer may be yes.

  1. Throughout this post, I’ll be using the word multitasking in a way that’s user-centered rather than machine-centered. Instead of caring whether the computer is splitting its processor time between two or more programs, I’ll be concerned with whether the user can see and access more that one application on the screen. 

  2. David Dunham was the inventor of the smart quotes algorithm, and his miniWRITER was the first program to use it. 

  3. Update 6/12/15 I’m surprised no one has called me out on this false memory of mine. Desk accessories often did turn off the menus of the running application.