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Hey, Google: It’s Time to Add Multi-Window Multitasking To Android

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In 2012, Google’s Dianne Hackborn threatened to revoke CyanogenMod’s access to the Android Market if they moved forward with adding “Cornerstone” multitasking to their custom ROM. Samsung has since created their own multi-window multitasking feature.

Dianne Hackborn said this “is something that needs to be done at the mainline platform level” so apps wouldn’t break. She was right — Android needs this as a standard feature and it’s time for Google to provide it.

Doesn’t Android Have Multitasking?

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Android originally stood out from Apple’s iOS with its powerful multitasking. Applications can continue running in the background while you’re using another application. This makes Android powerful — you can even have BitTorrent clients downloading files in the background while using another app. Android still kept the design of a single app on screen at a time. This made a lot of sense when Android only ran on smartphones with small screens.

Today, Android runs on everything from smaller smartphones all the way up to huge “phablets” like the Galaxy Note. Android has gone beyond phones and runs on 12-inch tablets, convertibles with keyboard docks, laptops, and even Android desktops. Android isn’t just a phone operating system.

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Samsung’s Multi-Window Isn’t Good Enough

Samsung has tried to add value to Android by adding a multi-window feature. When you’re using a high-end phone like the Galaxy Note or Galaxy S, or a Galaxy tablet, you have the ability to run certain apps side-by-side with each other.

There are big problems here. This only works on Samsung devices, and only on specific Samsung devices. To add support for this feature in a way that doesn’t break other apps, Samsung’s multi-window feature also only works with specific apps. You can’t just run any app in multi-window view, only the apps on the Multi Window bar Samsung provides. This prevents third-party apps from breaking, which is what Google was worried about with CyanogenMod’s Cornerstone feature.

A feature that only works with a handful of apps on specific devices from a single manufacturer isn’t good enough. This feature needs to work on every Android device — or at least ones with suitably large screens and powerful enough internals. It needs to be an Android platform feature so application developers can ensure their apps will work properly with it on every device.

Android developers shouldn’t have to add support for each manufacturer’s own multi-window feature if other manufacturers decide to copy Samsung.

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Floating Apps Are a Dirty Hack

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Floating apps also enable real multitasking. Remember that Android allows apps to run in the background while you’re using an app in the foreground. These apps can present interfaces that appear floating above the current app — think of it like using “always on top” to make a window always appear over every other app on a desktop operating system.

You can install floating apps to browse the web, take notes, chat, and watch videos while using any app. Only apps specifically designed to run as floating apps will work, so you have to seek them out. Floating apps are also awkward to use because they float over the app you’re using, blocking parts of its interface.

Microsoft added floating-window support to Skype for Android. You can have a video conversation and the other person’s face will always appear on your screen, even when you leave the Skype app. Microsoft is using more of Android’s multi-window multitasking power than Google is.

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Custom ROMs and Root-Only Tweaks Aren’t Acceptable

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Some custom ROMs are adding this feature to Android. Google threatened to revoke CyanogenMod’s access to the Android Market (now known as Google Play) if they added this feature because it could potentially break third-party apps. Today, other custom ROMs are working on split-screen multitasking. Samsung added their own version to their own devices.

You can also get this feature by using a root-only Xposed Framework tweak known as XMultiWindow. If you have root access, you can get multi-window multitasking or any app on your device.

This shouldn’t require rooting your device or installing a custom ROM. These third-party solutions often have awkward interfaces and bugs. We need an integrated, supported solution that works the same on every device.

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Why Multi-Window is Important

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Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 stands out among tablet operating systems for its powerful multitasking support, allowing you to view several apps side-by-side at the same time. Apple is also reported to be working on adding side-by-side apps to the iPad with iOS 8. On every competitor’s operating system, you’ll be able to view a web page while you write an email, watch a video while you browse the web, or chat with someone while you do anything else.

But Android’s still remained frozen in time. Despite all Android’s underlying power — and despite the way Android allows apps to adapt to different screen sizes — Google is resisting adding this feature.

Large-screen Android tablets like the Nexus 10 (remember that tablet Google hasn’t updated in over 18 months?) need this feature. So do huge phones, convertibles, laptops, and Android desktops.

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If tablets are the future of personal computing, we should be able to do more than one thing at a time on our tablets’ big screens. Microsoft, Samsung, and even Apple are realizing this — now it’s Google’s turn.

Image Credit: Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr, Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/23/14