Is Single-Tasking Just Better?

Until iOS came along on Apple’s touch screen devices, having a windowing operating system was de rigour for any sophisticated computing experience. Nobody really asked why – it just seemed good. Have a video playing in one window, your email in another, have your spreadsheet in another one and, I dunno, move them all around with your mouse. For fun. What’s not to like?

Until iOS, the idea of a major market player releasing an operating system that wasn’t windowed would have met with utter derision. How 1985 would that be! Yet with the iPad on a 9.7″ screen, that was exactly what you got. And everyone loved it.

My first experience of this minor earthquake in computing was in using an iPod touch. Multi-touch and swiping stuff was OK if rather gimmicky, but the thing that really caught my attention was the simplicity bought about by single-tasking. This, closely followed by the absence of a file system. At a stroke, two of the most problematic issues in personal computing disappeared. No more having to worry about herding windows. With the iPod it was simply one screen at a time. This, I realised, is how most people actually want to use a desktop computer with a WIMP-based OS. Very, very occasionally you might have two documents open and arrange them in a way that you can refer to one while working on another. But that’s just about the only use case. After that, most habitual users of desktop machines simply keep every application full screen, and Alt+Tab between them. The less adept confuse themselves with mode errors and other such pain while trying manage windows. If there isn’t a desire to multi-task, why design an OS that tries to enable it?

I wonder how much of the impression of simplicity accorded to iOS is actually a result of it being single-tasking, and not the multi-touch features so beloved of Apple’s marketing department?