Windowed Apps Are the Future of Smartphones

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Something very interesting is happening over on Android. After years of jumping between apps like pages in a book, we’re starting to see the emergence of software that allows us to work with multiple apps simultaneously – not just apps running concurrently in the background, but actually sharing screen real estate – and more importantly, software that does so well. Different parties have engineered different systems for giving our phones this ability, and it still remains to be seen what will be the “best” way to do things, but regardless of the details, I’m excited; windowed apps on smartphones have been a long time coming, and it feels like they might just be ready to go mainstream in a very big way.

mwvWhat has me thinking about all this now are the Facebook Chat Heads on Android, but let’s back up a little first. This trend really started warming up last year with Samsung and its Multi Window View mode. Samsung’s implementation on the Note II (later spreading to other Samsung models through software updates) was really interesting, but it was the independent development community that took that ball and ran with it.

In December, I caught wind of a mod for the original Galaxy Note that took this MWV trick and freed the apps from the constraints of the screen’s borders: Floating Multiwindows (above). By putting apps in movable, resizable windows, Android was finally starting to look less like a very capable gadget, and more like a mobile computer.

That was incredibly cool, but it was ultimately still a hack that the majority of smartphone users would never see. Enter: Facebook Home.

I was all ready to hate Facebook Home; I don’t particularly care for Facebook in the first place, so seeing it take on a larger role with smartphones seemed, well, bad. But for as little as Facebook’s content appeals to me, dammit if those Chat Heads aren’t a fantastic idea. As you’ve probably noticed already, the whole team at Pocketnow is seriously crazy about what Facebook did here, and excited to see where this goes next.

chathead-smallI’ve got one big problem with Chat Heads, though: they’re on top. No matter what you do, they’re blocking some of the action. Sure, you can move them around to minimize that impact, or dismiss them altogether, but I think there’s a better way to do things.

Everyone’s going to have a different way they like to organize windows on their computers, but for me it’s all about layering them so there’s a bit of everything showing. I like my messaging app sticking out from under by browser, and my process manager churning away at the bottom of the screen, giving me running updates on CPU and memory usage. Unless I’m watching a video, nothing ever goes full-screen, and nothing’s ever set to be always-on-top.

This is great because it shows me a whole lot of info at once; even if with only a sliver of a program showing through the clutter, it can still tell me what I need to know. I would absolutely love to be able to work with my smartphone in the same way. Chat Heads are cool, but if we want to really start multitasking, something along the lines of those Floating Multiwindows is 100% the way to go.

Now, smartphones being smartphones, it wouldn’t make sense to just say “do things like PCs.” Issues like screen size and resolution are very real factors to consider, and I don’t think that full-screen apps will ever be replaced entirely. What we could see happen, though, are things like widgets start becoming a lot more mobile.

Chat Heads are a step in the right direction, but I’m hoping the next year brings something even more flexible and useful. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the geniuses at Google have been looking at all this themselves, and might have their own ideas for baking some of this windowed functionality right into Android. If it takes off there, other smartphone platforms could follow in their own right.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. There could be a more graceful solution than even what I’m suggesting. However it manifests, putting apps in windows is something I think will be key to where smartphone software goes in the years to come.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!