iOS 11 brings iPad multi-tasking improvements… and quirks

Jason Snell
28 July, 2017
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This winter, iPad users who are testing out the iOS 11 Public Beta are getting their first taste of the future of iPad multi-tasking. From a redesigned app switcher to an entirely transformed Dock, iOS 11 will make things quite different.

While so many of these changes are welcome – I’ve been running iOS 11 on my iPad Pro since the very first beta release because I’ve been so desperate for some of these improvements – there are still some interesting wrinkles. It remains to be seen just what will change before iOS 11 goes final this fall, but here’s a look at where we are today, and where things might go in the future.

The Dock is… different

Since the early days of iOS, the Dock has been nothing more than a tray on which you could place frequently-used apps so that they’d be within reach no matter what page of your home screen you were currently viewing. With iOS 11 on iPad, the Dock is entirely different and this means your approach to what apps you put in the Dock should be different too.

In iOS 11, the Dock pops up with a quick swipe from the bottom of the screen while you’re in any app. You can quickly switch to another app by tapping on one of the apps, or tap and drag out an app to add it to Split View or Slide Over multi-tasking.

In the current iOS beta, you can stick 15 apps into the Dock, so you can get a whole lot of icons down there if you want. But what I’ve realised after using iOS 11 for a few weeks is that what I really want the Dock to be is a place to prioritise two kinds of apps. The first group is the apps I use all the time, which is basically what I used the Dock for before. But the second group is the apps I use in multi-tasking mode. Those need to be in the Dock, because it’s much less efficient to add an app to a multi-tasking mode if they’re not in the Dock. As a result, the text editors I use to write articles now live in my Dock, as does the new Files app.

(Also, you’d better be quite familiar with the icons of the apps you put in the Dock: They no longer display names below them.)

One feature I’ve come to appreciate in the Dock is the app suggestions section, which takes up the three rightmost icons on the Dock. These are generally the three apps you’ve used the most recently, which makes it awfully convenient to switch between apps using the Dock rather than bringing up the much more complicated view that encompasses both Control Centre and the multi-tasking view.

Every app needs a buddy, but only one

After the celebrations over multi-tasking coming to the iPad with iOS 9 died down, I came to a realisation: I was spending a lot of time switching between one set of Split View apps to another, because iOS 9 only had the concept of a single app on the right side of Split View. Every time I wanted to switch from one pair of apps (Editorial and Safari, let’s say) to another pair (Slack and Twitterrific), it was a multi-step process that involved switching the left app and then sliding away the right app and picking its replacement.

In iOS 11, this approach has been changed – when you set up two apps in Split View, they stay together. It’s great. Now it’s easy to toddle between different pairs of apps as you work. It’s a huge advance

That said… when the celebrations over iOS 11 die down, I think we’re all going to see the limitations of this approach. Most specifically, apps can only be paired a single time. If I want Safari to ride along with a couple of different apps in Split View, I can’t. When an app is added to a Split View in one place, it disappears from the others. (A workaround would be to use Slide Over for such apps, since Slide Over is persistent – but it’s not always the right choice.)

I can see why Apple has taken this approach. When you tap an app icon (in the Dock) that’s open in Split View, it opens that app and its Split View buddy together. If that app was ‘open’ in a few different pairings, which one would open? Things are already a bit complicated. In the current iOS 11 betas, you can add an app in Slide Over that’s also available in Split View. When you choose that app from the home screen, it opens with its buddy – but when you choose it from the Dock within another app, it just slides in from the side.

Some of this may get worked out during the iOS 11 beta, but the larger issue still remains: Can apps only ever exist once? That doesn’t seem right – there are plenty of instances where you might want to pair an app with a few different buddies. But that adds complications for app switching.

Dragging and dropping apps

iOS 11 adds drag-and-drop support between apps for data, which is great. But it also uses the drag-and-drop metaphor to implement multi-tasking. To create a Split View, you drag an app out of the Dock until open space appears to the right of a running app, and then drop. To create a Slide Over, you drag the icon a bit more centrally and let go.

It’s a visual, tactile and simple to understand interface. However, things can get a bit weird in a few contexts. You can drag out of the home screen, use another finger to launch an app and then drop the first app icon into a Split View. You can drag an app out of a Spotlight search window, but the Spotlight search doesn’t disengage, so you’re left to drag an app icon above search results while the app running beneath it opens up space for Split View. And you can’t drag out of the command-tab app switcher at all.

Again, these inconsistencies may get ironed out in the latter weeks of the iOS 11 beta, but they highlight the complications that are created as a result of the new features of the system.

I have no regrets about jumping to iOS 11 on my iPad. The new multi-tasking features are going to be great. They may have their quirks, but in time those can be ironed out. With any luck we won’t have to wait until iOS 12 or 13 to see iPad multi-tasking get even more refined.

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