How to Use Multitasking on the iPhone

iphone multitasking
The Fast App Switcher multitasking interface in iOS 9.

No one can do just one thing at a time anymore. In our busy world, multitasking is a requirement. The same thing is true of your iPhone. To help you get the most done, the iPhone supports multitasking.

Traditional multitasking, in the sense that we’ve become accustomed to on desktop computers, means being able to run more than one program at the same time. IPhone multitasking doesn’t quite work that way.

Instead, most iPhone apps are paused when you're not using them, with some exceptions based on the kind of apps.

Fast App Switching: Multitasking, iPhone Style

Instead of offering traditional multitasking, the iPhone uses something Apple calls Fast App Switching. When you click the home button to leave an app and return to the home screen, the app you were in essentially freezes where you were and what you were doing. The next time you return to that app you return to that same state. Instead of starting over each time, you pick up where you left off. This isn’t really multitasking, but it’s a nice user experience.

Some Apps Run in the Background

While most apps get frozen when you're not using them, there are a few categories of apps that can run in the background (i.e., while other apps are also running). This is traditional multitasking. The kinds of apps that can run in the background are:

  • Music – Listen to the Music app, Pandora, streaming radio, and other music apps while doing other things.
  • Location – Apple and Google Maps allow you to get directions and use other apps simultaneously.
  • AirPlay - Apple's technology for streaming audio and video from the iPhone to compatible TVs, stereos, and other devices runs in the background.
  • VoIP (Voice Over IP) – Apps like Skype that let you make phone calls over the Internet instead of over a cellular network work with other apps.
  • Push Notifications - These notifications let you know something's happened in another app that you may want to check out. 

Just because apps in these categories can run in the background doesn't mean they will. The apps have to be written to take advantage of multitaskng—but the capability is in the OS and many, maybe even most, apps in these categories can run in the background.

In iOS 7 and up, apps that can run in the background are even more sophisticated. That's because the iOS can learn how you use apps using a feature called Background App Refresh. If you usually check social media first thing in the morning, the iOS can learn that behavior and update your social media apps a few minutes before you normally check them to ensure that all the latest information is waiting for you.

How to Access the Fast App Switcher

The Fast App Switcher lets you jump between recently used apps. To access it, quickly double-click the iPhone's home button.

  • In iOS 9, the screen drops back a bit to reveal a carousel of screenshots and app icons for all of your current apps. Swipe left and right to browse apps and then tap the app you want to use.
  • In iOS 7 and 8, the experience is very similar to iOS 9, except that instead of a carousel, you have a flat row of apps. You'll also see shortcuts to frequent contacts at the top of this screen. Otherwise, it works the same way as in iOS 9.
  • In iOS 4-6, most of the screen is grayed out and reveals a set of icons at the bottom. Swipe the icons left and right to see recent apps, then tap an icon to launch that app.

Quitting Apps in the Fast App Switcher

The Fast App Switcher also lets you to quit apps. This is especially useful if an app isn't working properly or may be downloading data in the background when you don't want it to.

Quitting background apps for third-party apps will stop them functioning until you relaunch them. Killing Apple apps allows them to continue background tasks like checking email, but forces them to restart.

To quit apps, open the Fast App Switcher, then: 

  • In iOS 7-9, swipe the app you want to quit off the top edge of the screen. The app disappears and quits. You can quit up to three apps at once by swiping them at the same time. How's that for efficiency?
  • In iOS 4-6, tap and hold an app icon until the icons begin to jiggle and a red badge with a minus sign in it appears on the apps. Tap the red badge to quit that app. You can only quit one app at a time on these versions of the iOS.

How Apps Are Sorted

Apps in the Fast App Switcher are sorted based on what you used most recently. This is done to group your most-used apps together so you won’t have to scroll too much to find your favorites.​