I Tell You What I’d Do: Two Apps at the Same Time

Today’s iOS-related rumour is about iOS 8 having some kind of split screen functionality. From 9to5Mac:

In addition to allowing for two iPad apps to be used at the same time, the feature is designed to allow for apps to more easily interact, according to the sources. For example, a user may be able to drag content, such as text, video, or images, from one app to another. Apple is said to be developing capabilities for developers to be able to design their apps to interact with each other. This functionality may mean that Apple is finally ready to enable “XPC” support in iOS (or improved inter-app communication), which means that developers could design App Store apps that could share content.

Although I have no sources of my own, I wouldn’t bet against Mark Gurman for having good intel on this. It seems likely that this is real, but I think it might end up being a misunderstanding of problems users are actually trying to solve.

It’s pretty well-known most users have struggled with the “windowed-applications” interface paradigm, where there can be multiple, overlapping windows on screen at once. Many users get lost in the windows and end up devoting too much time to managing the windows than actually getting to work. So iOS is mostly a pretty great step forward in this regard. Having two “windows” of apps open at once would be a step back to the difficulties found on the desktop. And just because the windows on iOS 8 might not overlap, there’s still two different apps to multitask with — something else pretty well known to cause strife in people.

Having multiple windows seems like a kind of “faster horse,” a way to just repurpose the “old way” of doing something instead of trying to actually solve the problem users are having. In this case, the whole impetus for showing multiple windows or “dragging and dropping between apps” is to share information between applications.

Users writing an email might want details from a website, map, or restaurant app. Users trying to IM somebody might want to share something they’ve just seen or made in another app. Writers might want to refer to links or page contents from a Wikipedia app. These sorts of problems can all be solved by juxtaposing app windows side by side, but to me it seems like a cop-out.

A better solution would be to share the data between applications, through some kind of system service. Instead of drag and drop, or copy and paste (both are essentially the same thing), objects are implicitly shared across the system. If you are looking at a restaurant in one app, then switch to a maps app, that map should show the restaurant (along with any other object you’ve recently seen with a location). When you head to your calendar, it should show potential mealtimes (with the contact you’re emailing with, of course).

This sort of “interaction” requires thinking about the problem a little differently, but it’s advantageous because it ends up skipping most of the interaction users actually have to do in the first place. Users don’t need to drag and drop, they don’t need to copy and paste, and they don’t need to manage windows. They don’t need to be overloaded with information of seeing too many apps on screen at once.

I’ve previously talked about this, and my work on this problem is largely inspired by a section in Magic Ink. It’s sort of a “take an object; leave an object” kind of system, where applications can send objects to the system service, and others can request objects from the system (and of course, applications can provide feedback as to which objects should be shown and which should be ignored).

I don’t expect Apple to do this in iOS 8, but I do hope somebody will consider it.

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