Mission Control for iPadOS: A better, more cohesive multitasking for Apple’s tablets

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled over Apple’s implementation of Stage Manager on the iPad and the Mac, and much of it has been either mixed or downright negative. While improvements have since been made and Stage Manager eventually won over some former critics, a subset of iPad power users continues to yearn for a Mac-like multitasking experience (though fundamental differences between the Mac and the iPad mean that this “simple” solution is a lot easier said than done).

Personally, I’m not exactly an iPad power user (though I use an iPad as my only “laptop”alongside my work-assigned Windows computer). Maybe that’s why I don’t care about the multitasking aspect of Stage Manager.

What I do like is when I activate Stage Manager on my 12.9-inch iPad, apps and windows aren’t confined to full-screen mode. Not every app benefits from a full-screen interface on a 12.9-inch screen, and Stage Manager permits apps like iMessage to use only as much screen estate as they need instead of being awkwardly stretched out (while still allowing full-screen for apps that benefit from generous screen estate).

But I digress.

Not your favorite manager

The point is, despite enabling Stage Manager on my iPad, I pretty much ignore the strip of recent windows on the left of my screen. I often rotate quickly between dozens of apps and windows and whatever relevant set (workspace containing multiple windows) I have been working on disappears from the strip because it only shows a few recent windows or sets at a time.

The easy solution to this, IMO, will be allowing users to pin certain sets/windows to the top of the strip, but this demands more proactive windows management from the user. There is, IMHO, a much better way.

Too many managers

My other gripe with Stage Manager is how it adds to an already messy pile of iPadOS multitasking methods that conceptually clash and result in unnecessary cognitive weight. Right now, it feels… almost as clunky as the Mac, maybe more so. The iPad is supposed to be the simple and lightweight alternative!

Yes, a casual user may just stick to full-screen mode forever and only occasionally accidentally summon Split View or Slide Over and be extremely confused. But for a iPadOS power user, every attempt at multitasking becomes a cognitively taxing moment of decision making as one figures out whether they want to type ⌘-Tab, 🌐-↑ for App Switcher, access Stage Manager’s strip, tap on the three dots on top of the current window to add another window, or just ⌘-H and tap on an app icon.

That’s… very far from ideal. I suppose that Apple is throwing everything at the wall and see what sticks, and will eliminate some of these options later on.

A modest proposal

Here’s what I think they should eliminate, and how they should consolidate whatever’s left into a relatively simple, elegant, and functional multitasking interface.

All it takes are a couple of simple design tweaks without changing anything about iPad app management!

The roaring twenty… eleven

When Apple introduced Mission Control on OS X Lion, it effectively consolidated Exposé, Dashboard, and spaces into one multitasking interface.

I’m sure not everyone loved it at first but as a whole, it was an instant improvement over the messy bunch of separate and disparate user interfaces that users had to discover on their own and choose between whenever they multitask. As John Siracusa wrote in his OS X Lion review for Ars Technica,

“As big a step down as this is from the much more flexible grid arrangement of Spaces in earlier versions of Mac OS X, the new limitations are probably a good idea. The new behavior of full-screen windows and the surprisingly natural-feeling four-finger swipes used to switch between them and enter Mission Control means that many more Mac users will likely find themselves using these new features than ever used the combination of Exposé and Spaces in earlier versions of the OS.”

One can argue that the App Switcher on iPadOS is the closest equivalent of Mission Control on the Mac: it shows all your open apps and even displays sets that you’ve set up via Stage Manager.

A more civilized age

Unlike Mission Control, though, instead of a handful of “open” apps that you can quickly choose between, the App Switcher displays an infinite scroll of app windows based on how recently you’ve used them.

This is inevitable, as apps/multitasking are handled very differently on the iPad. The user is not supposed to think about which apps are open or closed. Having the user actively manage which apps are open and which apps are not are the norm on macOS (though Apple did try to phase it out with OS X Lion and later chickened out) feels as antiquated as having to type ⌘-S to save a document’s current state. With more powerful chips, an iPad Pro could theoretically keep so many apps open in the background that all apps are technically open (I know we’re very far from that reality, but it’s the ideal that Apple appears to be working towards.)

I mostly understand why Stage Manager is designed the way it is. There are only so many ways to reconcile how iPadOS handles apps and the user’s need to have multiple windows appear on the screen at the same time. Sets are a good and obvious way to implement multi-window workspaces without throwing iPadOS’s more modern application management out of the window. With this in mind, if we try to redesign multitasking on the iPad, we’ll probably inevitably end up with something very similar to Stage Manager’s sets.

Having multiple windows open on the screen at the same time is essential for productivity, and sets is something I think any new iPad multitasking paradigm should fully embrace.

Switching things up a little

I’m also convinced that iPadOS’s App Switcher is a pretty solid foundation for our consolidated iPad multitasking design.

My main gripe with App Switcher is how unintuitive and inefficient it is to invoke it with a keyboard shortcut or through trackpad/multitouch gestures. 🌐-↑ isn’t as easy to remember and use as ⌘-Tab or ⌘-H, while a three-finger swipe up via the on-screen Home Bar or trackpad takes you back to the Home Screen instead of App Switcher, unless you pause mid-gesture which makes it a lot less efficient and a lot more time-consuming than invoking Mission Control on the Mac.

A more intuitive keyboard shortcut and a more efficient gesture might not sound like much, but it will make a big difference in making the iPad feel as efficient as the Mac. I feel that the three-finger trackpad swipe should invoke Mission Control instead of the Home Screen. Just swipe on the Home Bar or spread your fingers on the Trackpad if you want to go to the Home Screen, exactly the same was as you show the Desktop on the Mac. More efficiency, more consistency between platforms.

So now that we’ve made the App Switcher easier and more intuitive to invoke, let us try to consolidate Stage Manager into the App Switcher while making sets a whole lot more useful, shall we?

Sets are the new spaces

You know how on the Mac, Mission Control displays a horizontal row of spaces at the top? Since there’s no spaces on the iPad, I propose that we use the same horizontal strip to display sets in our new multitasking view.

After all, sets are essentially the iPad equivalent of spaces. Both are workspaces containing a set of open windows, if you think about it.

As I have explained, the current biggest issue with sets is how they are often hidden in both Stage Manager and the current App Switcher. With this new design, all existing sets that the user has created are displayed as a row above the App Switcher. Yes, this means that the user may have to scroll a bit if she created 20 sets, but if Mission Control is good enough to manage most Mac users’ number of spaces, it should be good enough to manage most iPad users’ number of sets.

So… that’s my simple (and boring) proposal! The current App Switcher remains essentially unchanged, but updated with a strip at the top to display all multi-window workspaces (sets). This way, sets are now no longer drowned out by a bunch of recent windows within the App Switcher.

Best of all, now there’s a conceptual consistency and familiarity that is portable between the Mac, the iPad, and a hypothetical future iPhone with an expandable screen.

Cleaning it all up

What about Stage Manager?

It has its advantages, like how it is always displayed on the left side of the screen when you’re within a non-fullscreen window. There’s no need to invoke it with obscure gestures or keyboard shortcuts and that might be great for less tech-savvy users. Some people apparently love it on the Mac because it simplifies windows management. Perhaps Apple should keep Stage Manager around as an option for Mac users, though I don’t care about it.

But on the iPad, it’s a visual and conceptual mess. No need for Stage Manager when you can just invoke Mission Control, I mean the App Switcher, to access all recent apps and sets. Split View & Slide Over should be dumped into a garbage bin and set on fire. No need to make the iPad more complicated than the Mac.

Back to the iPad

Heck, while I’m partial to re-branding the updated App Switcher as Mission Control for iPad, Apple can just decide to call it Stage Manager — though I’d argue that Mission Control sounds a lot more empowering as it highlights how the user stays fully in control instead of outsourcing her window management to a Stage Manager, but that’s just my copywriter brain speaking.

It is only fitting that the iPad should learn from a feature introduced in OS X Lion, the version of macOS that started the whole trend of bringing iPad features “back to the Mac” twelve years ago. The iPad is already plenty powerful despite its simplicity. It’s long past time for Apple to let iPad users feel powerful as well.