iOS 9 Picture In Picture Takes Desktop Concepts To Mobile And Does It Better

12 June 2015

iPad multitasking was sorely needed. What Apple did matches up really well with what I asked for way back in January 2014. In iOS 9, Apple implemented both of my feature requests, Panels (which Apple calls Split View) and Popovers (which Apple calls Slideover). The nomenclature is different but the feature descriptions are almost identical. The iPad Pro element of the puzzle will no doubt show itself later in the year.

iPad Multitasking is hard to verbalise and describe well as its really an umbrella term for a class of different modes and behaviours. I’ve tested it and everything is pretty straightforward and intuitive to actually use, way easier than trying to write up an explanation of every interaction. I want to focus on one element of iPad multitasking in particular: picture in picture.

The thing about the iPad picture-in-picture implementation is that its actually better than how one would handle such a task on a Mac. On a Mac, trying to play a video in the corner whilst getting on with your work is difficult. Let’s take a video on YouTube playing in Safari. To play this in a corner of the screen on a Mac, you have to pull the window out into its own tab. Then, you have to manually drag the corners of the window to resize it and do your best to clip out all the unnecessary surrounding UI by hand. No doubt the window has a toolbar so you’ll probably have to do some awkward keyboard shortcut or hidden menu command to hide that as well.

Then you have to actually manage the window as you go on with your work. What do I mean by this? Well, with every other task you open you also have to make sure it doesn’t occlude the video playback window by dragging it out the way. The video can’t stay foremost so it’s actually really easy to lose the video amongst your other windows.

If you ever want to move the video from one corner to another, not only do you have to position the video on the screen, you also have to move all your other windows back over to the other side.

What if you want to make the video view a bit bigger? Drag the corners right? Nope. Dragging the corners of Safari just makes the viewport bigger showing the content on the webpage that surrounds the video. To actually make the video bigger, you have to zoom into the page and then readjust the window region to again fit the new video bounds. It’s a mess and the iPad implementation should embarrass the Mac team.

On the iPad, you play a video. With the video still playing, you press the Home button and the video scales down into a floating always-on-top chromeless panel. There’s a subtle drop shadow to indicate layering but nothing overbearing. You can make it bigger or smaller with a quick two-finger pinch and use one finger to flick it to any corner where it snaps into place. It’s so much simpler. There’s nothing to manage.

Just compare how many words I needed to describe the required interactions on the Mac and the iOS 9 iPad to achieve the same result. The drastically-simplified iPad implementation puts the Mac to shame. iOS 9 picture-in-picture is really great.

To seal the deal further, this behaviour also works with FaceTime calls. On iOS 9, with the same single press of the Home Button, you can now multitask videoconferencing and any other app. This is a massive boon for business customer but also has benefits normal people: my Mum always switches out to other apps whilst talking to me on a FaceTime call and having a persistent video stream of my face is a perfect reassurance that I am still ‘there’.

Picture-in-picture really is a fantastic feature with fantastic design. Its an incredible translation of a desktop metaphor to a tablet. Its so much simpler than a typical window manager with almost no compromise. Its just better. Why doesn’t the Mac work this way?