Split screen multitasking isn't something new in the tablet space. Microsoft was really the first of the major players to implement it all the way back with Windows 8, although the optimal tablet implementation was mostly restricted to Modern UI apps, with traditional Windows applications having supported a different form of multitasking since long before the advent of the modern tablet simply due to how desktop operating systems with windowing work. More recently, Apple introduced split screen multitasking in iOS 9 on the iPad Air 2, along with two other forms of multitasking for older devices in the form of slide over apps and picture in picture views. These features made their way to the iPad Mini 4 and iPad Pro as well, with the latter offering an experience that essentially gave you two full sized tablet applications side by side. Up until this point Android users were left in the cold, with no way to multitask and existing applications that really just worked like big phone apps.

Android N comes with an optimal but not novel split screen implementation; which Google refers to as Multi-Window mode. It's actually pretty much the same way as iOS handles it, although there are some obvious changes that go along with the differences between iOS and Android. Triggering the multitasking mode is slightly different based on where you are in the UI. The initial case is when you’re just on the home screen. In this case, you need to open the multitasking switcher and hold the existing application for a moment until two shaded areas appear on the left and right sides of the screen. You can then drag the window to one of these sides, which then scales it to fill half of the screen, and puts the multitasking switcher on the other half so that you can select another app to fill that section.

By default, you get a 50/50 split, but you can adjust it to a split where either the left or right application takes up roughly 2/3 of the display, with the other app occupying the remainder. This is similar to how iOS allows for a 50/50 split or an application pinned on the right side, but it gives you more flexibility by allowing you to pin a smaller app on the left side. I actually appreciate this, as there are circumstances where I really want my primary app on the right side on an iPad, which isn’t an option due to there only being two multitasking views.

Some people may wonder why Google didn’t just allow for any arbitrary split. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the majority of the time the user will simply want a 50/50 split or to just pin a chat app on the side while working mostly inside another app which occupies most of the display. The existing options cover those cases completely. The second issue is that developers have to be able to tell the operating system a minimum width that they require to lay out their app properly. Because this width would be different from application to application depending on what sort of app it is, there’s no way to enforce consistency with what split is allowed, and users would get confused by why they aren’t allowed to split the screen the same way as with different apps, or why the split ratio had to suddenly adjust itself when they changed what secondary application was open.

The second issue that I outlined above is actually something that I’ve already seen before. I encountered it constantly on the Galaxy Tab S2 which uses Samsung’s multitasking and allows you to set absolutely absurd ratios where the smaller application couldn’t possibly present any useful information. Ultimately, you have to strike a balance between flexibility and consistency, and with Google and Apple having converged upon a similar solution despite the enormous differences between how they handle application layouts, I think it’s clear that offering a few possible layouts can cover almost all cases that a user needs, and the flexibility of allowing an arbitrary split isn’t worth the additional developer effort and inevitable bugs just to satisfy the few cases where the user wants to adjust the ratio a bit more.

If you’re already in an application Google has added a quick but not incredibly obvious way of opening the multitasking drawer in a split view. If you simply tap the button to open it, you’ll be greeted by the standard app switcher and you’ll need to go through the process of dragging one app to the right and one to the left. This actually ends up being more time consuming than the iOS implementation, and Google clearly had that in mind when they added the second method which involves holding down the multitasking button while you’re inside another app. This automatically pushes the open application to the left and brings up the switcher so you can select an app to go on the right. It’s actually the fastest way of accessing multitasking that I’ve seen on a tablet, and I’m quite impressed with how Google has clearly aimed to make multitasking quickly accessible. Holding the button while using two apps quickly dismisses the app on the right side and the left app will return to filling the entire display.

Of course, the big question is how well the multitasking actually works in practice. Obviously this is a developer beta, and I’m not going to fault Google or any other third party developers for bugs. In fact, it has actually worked much better than I expected. As of right now it looks like pretty much any application will work with multitasking, with the exception of some exclusive full screen apps like games. Based on Google’s developer documentation it appears that apps built with a version of the SDK lower than Android N will be forcibly put into multitasking mode, with a popup telling the user that the app may behave unexpectedly. Once developers start targeting Android N they can specify whether their app can work with split screen mode or not.

Naturally, every app I’ve tried except for some of Google’s own has told me that the app doesn’t support multitasking. Despite that, they’ve all worked quite well. Twitter, Chrome, and Hangouts all work very well. Skype has been uncooperative when you put it as the smaller window, but for a feature that just came into existence today it’s impressive how well things are working. The fact that these applications already scale to different displays gives Android a big advantage over iOS, as there’s no need to redo your entire app layout to enable split screen mode, and many existing apps already work fairly well with no changes at all.

My only concern with split screen mode is that it takes away a lot of the incentive for developers to make proper tablet UIs, which is already something that Google and other Android developers don’t bother to do. It’s appealing from an effort perspective to rationalize not doing it because users will just use apps in a split screen layout where the app has to look like it does on a phone anyway. There are many apps which are well suited to a full screen view, and I hope that we’ll still see a change in the attitude toward tablet apps on Android even in light of the split screen mode in Android N. It already looks like a fantastic implementation of multitasking, and I’m excited to see how it improves as Google irons out the bugs and developers build apps with support for it in mind.

Enter the Android N Beta Other Features and Efficiency Improvements
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  • raptormissle - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    Have they ever given Apple "recommendations"? I'm on the side they haven't. Ars must think Apple is beyond reproach.
  • michael2k - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    Well, do you have any? Note that N is going to come out a year after iOS 9, which already added multitasking and windowing improvements, for example, as well as having the nominally better sleep and memory behavior mentioned as improvements in the article. iOS doesn't broadcast changes to wake up apps, so doesn't need to remove that. Thanks to having support for multiple binaries and a fixed number of CPU configurations, iOS also allows for per CPU optimization to improve performance and memory optimizations.
  • raptormissle - Saturday, March 12, 2016 - link

    You need to qualify your statements. First, Android N multi-windows works on all devices - phones and tablets and whatever else that runs N. Additionally, apps already work with Android's multi-window without any modification whatsoever.

    As for iOS - multi-window support is only available on 2 or 3 iPad models and is not available on phones. Additionally, to support the multi-window functionality in an iPad the app must be modified to support it.
  • Brandon Chester - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    Android does not publicly have a built in battery percentage nor the ability to use Multi-Window apps. It doesn't matter what you can do with adb or system UI tuner, it's effectively not accessible for 99% of users. To claim that all of these features "has been in Android for years" is simply incorrect and ridiculous.

    Also, you're misunderstanding what I've written about the multitasking button behavior. Holding down the multitasking button has absolutely no effect right now. Holding down a button and tapping it are not the same action. In Android N depending on whether you hold or tap it you get a different response due to the new Multi-Window features. However, because that interaction hasn't previously existed, Google should make it clearer to the user that they can do that.
  • ThisIsChrisKim - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    But the most popular Android OEM, Samsung, implements these features in their phones and tablets. So it's probably a bit more commonly used than you might think?
  • extide - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    In Samsung phones you hold the back button to bring up the multi window menu, not the app-switcher button, so it is different. You can also swipe from the top right to make an app into a window on Samsung devices, and that may be different too, so he made a perfectly valid statement.
  • ThisIsChrisKim - Thursday, March 10, 2016 - link

    I was referring to battery percentage and multi window existing in Samsung's software. Not the way you interact with the multitasking button.
  • BenSkywalker - Friday, March 11, 2016 - link

    Doubling down on your extreme iOS perspective, OK. iOS doesn't have a 'built in' YouTube app- would you honestly try and pass off YouTube on iOS as a new feature? I have here an old CupCake Android phone with the battery indicator as numeric- it has been around as I stated, for many years. For side by side multi tasking on Android- *YOU* wrote an article last year about this functionality on a *second generation* Tab S device last year(the one where you went all iOS even in the specification chart, listing the originals as running 4.4 when 5.0 had been over the air for *six months* prior to your article). You want screenshots of these things, or are you going to explain to people that iOS can't view YouTube because it isn't actually part of the OS?

    Holding down the multitasking button has absolutely no effect right now.

    I read this article for the first time on an OPO. I hit the multitasking button and it brought up the browser options- I held the multitasking button down and it opened up a view of every application I had running. That interaction has existed, on Android, for a long time now- as have the other features as others have already mentioned.

    This isn't iOS- one size doesn't fit all, devices are free to do whatever they want- including rebuilding the entire OS- Amazon's Fire line is a good example- still Android. They exacting build you have on one particular device does *NOT* mean "Android". This isn't iOS. Seriously, if you could read yourself from an enlightened perspective you would realize how absurdly foolish you sound. Your world revolves around iOS, that's fine, get someone who knows what they are talking about to handle Android.

    For the record- Your excluding Slingshot and Car Chase is getting embarrassing, we are coming up on a year now for Slingshot.
  • erple2 - Saturday, March 12, 2016 - link

    No, Brandon is correct. None of my Nexus devices with base Android have any of the multitasking features that you claim exist. They simply aren't there.

    Once you start talking about customizations of Android with various vendor flavors, including custom ROMs, all bets are off. I could fork Android and implement some crazy feature with my fork, but I can't claim that Android supports my crazy feature.
  • BenSkywalker - Sunday, March 13, 2016 - link

    Brandon is absolutely wrong. You claim your Nexus devices don't have multitasking features that I claim exist? First, I would point out that older iPads aren't Nexus devices, then I could point you to hundreds of different places-

    Yeah, even the four year old Nexus 7 has had multi window multi tasking available for years. That is a straight from Google device using a straight from Google build of the OS and multi window support is available. Not exactly your highly customized fork. Brandon doesn't like Android, we all get that, he is very devoted to iOS, again, no problem with that. Someone who actually is an Android user should probably cover Android devices to avoid looking completely ignorant.

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