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iPadOS 16’s Stage Manager is not the future of multitasking you were hoping for

iPadOS 16’s Stage Manager is not the future of multitasking you were hoping for

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It’s another app switcher in a too-long list of iPad app switchers. And Apple’s running out of reasons not to give us more.

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An iPad screenshot running Messages, Slack, and Gmail side by side.
I do love my Stage Manager messaging command center. But even that would be better with better multitasking.
Image: Apple / David Pierce

There is really only one big idea inside of iPadOS 16. The new operating system comes with plenty of improvements and upgrades, of course — editable messages, a Weather app (finally), improvements to most of Apple’s built-in apps, and some extremely clever new Live Text features — but most of that is already available on the iPhone through iOS 16. There’s nothing wrong with an iterative update, of course, and by the time you hit version 16 of anything, you’re not likely to be breaking much new ground.

Stage Manager, though, is an almost entirely new thing. It’s the one feature in iPadOS 16 that has the actual potential to change the way you use your iPad (provided you have a compatible model — third-gen iPad Pro or newer, fifth-gen iPad Air or newer) and the things you can do with it. It also appears to be the reason iPadOS 16 took so long to be released: Apple’s been tweaking Stage Manager all summer, and even now, its much-touted support for external displays isn’t in the new software. It’s still coming, just... later.

After testing the first public beta in July, I wrote that I hated Stage Manager. It didn’t solve any of the iPad’s multitasking problems for me and actually managed to create some new ones. Since then, I’ve been following along as Apple has tinkered with the feature over the last few months through the company’s public beta process for iPadOS 16. And now, as version 16.1 makes its way to iPads everywhere, I regret to inform you that Stage Manager still doesn’t work. This is not the iPad multitasking you’re looking for.

Safari, Craft, and Spotify on a single iPad screen through Stage Manager.
You can run three apps at a time with Stage Manager, but any more and things get really crowded.
Image: Apple / David Pierce

The best way to understand Stage Manager is as a remix of the Mac’s Spaces concept. Once you enable it in the “Home Screen & Multitasking” menu in the Settings app (it’s off by default), Stage Manager puts the app you’re using in the center of the screen, which Apple calls the “stage.” Your four most recent apps sit off to the left, organized into what Apple calls “piles,” with thumbnails representing what’s in each. You can add more apps to the stage by dragging them from the dock or tapping on the three-dot window at the top of the screen and selecting “Add Another Window.” You can resize the windows in the stage by dragging the bottom corner, as long as the apps support being shrunk and expanded to certain sizes. You can even have windows overlapping one another. If you tap on one of the thumbnails on the left, it’ll bring that app or apps to the stage and move all the other ones off to the side.

The upgrade path

Which iPads are getting iPadOS 16? This year, it’s more complicated than most. Here’s the breakdown:

These iPads are compatible with iPadOS 16:

  • iPad, fifth generation and newer
  • iPad mini, fifth generation and newer
  • iPad Air, third generation and newer
  • iPad Pro, all generations

And these are the ones getting iPadOS 16 and Stage Manager:

  • 11-inch iPad Pro, all generations
  • 12.9-inch iPad Pro, third generation and newer
  • iPad Air, fifth generation

There’s also the question of which iPads will get Stage Manager on external displays... but we’ll worry about that when that feature ships.

In theory, this makes some sense. If you’re the type of person to spend all day switching between a handful of apps, this is, in fact, a faster way to do so than Apple’s traditional swipe-and-hold multitasking system. But as soon as you really dig into Stage Manager, it falls apart. At best, it feels totally disconnected from everything else about the iPad; at worst, it’s just broken. Way too often, it’s both. 

The broken stuff is mostly what I’d call “beta stuff,” and there is plenty of it. I’ve had the on-screen keyboard randomly appear when I resized an app; I’ve had apps crash as soon as I touched the bottom corner to resize them. Apple’s Camera app switches from landscape to portrait aspect ratios as soon as you shrink the window. If you switch your iPad from landscape to portrait mode and then back, it resizes all your windows for some reason.

Some apps snap neatly from their full-size view to their split-screen view to their iPhone-sized view as you resize them, but plenty of apps don’t have all those views, so the windows either don’t change at all or just awkwardly shrink their full-sized apps. A bunch of Apple’s own apps do this, including Settings and iTunes. 

I could keep going, but you get the point. Stage Manager might be shipping, and it has gotten better since its first nonsensical beta, but it’s definitely not done.

Netflix and Settings on an iPad screen.
Some apps scale nicely in Stage Manager. Others... don’t.
Image: Apple / David Pierce

Draw me a map

The bigger issue with Stage Manager is that I still don’t know why it exists. It’s almost like a nifty on-stage demo turned into a feature: for the person who is constantly dragging a photo out of their email, into their whiteboarding app, annotating it with a Pencil, sharing the whiteboard link through iMessage, jumping on a FaceTime to discuss, moving the photo into one of those wildly powerful 3D-rendering tools Apple loves to demo but only six people actually use in their day-to-day life, then making an iMovie film about the whole thing, before dragging it all back into an email attachment, Stage Manager works great. But I’d wager that nobody outside of Apple Park — and maybe nobody besides Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi — actually uses their iPad like that.

Trying to figure out how Stage Manager works turns into a wild puzzle requiring a wall of Polaroids and a ball of yarn

Here in the real world, trying to figure out how Stage Manager works turns into a wild puzzle requiring a wall of Polaroids and a ball of yarn. Okay, so you open an app, and it opens into Stage Manager. That kicks the fifth-most recent pile… out of Stage Manager. But then, if you reopen an app from that old pile, it comes back into Stage Manager, along with the rest of its pile! So it wasn’t gone — it was just hidden. If you have an app open in two piles, there’s no way to know which will open if you click a link to that app. You can’t rename or pin a pile, and you can’t put one in your dock. You can’t see piles by CMD-tabbing between them, either. They just kind of come and go. 

The exception is the app switcher, which interacts with Stage Manager in a way that actually makes sense. You swipe up and hold to open the view of all your windows, which includes both full-screen apps and whatever piles you’ve created. This works! But that view doesn’t match what’s on the left side of the Stage Manager, and it should. 

The app switcher open on an iPad.
Stage Manager and the app switcher actually work well together, letting you bounce between apps and piles.
Image: Apple / David Pierce

Say you decide you want to full-screen a window, so you tap on the three-dot button at the top and select Zoom. Sometimes, nothing happens — which is weird. But even when the app does snap to full size, it still stays in the pile. The only way to get it out of the pile is to tap on the three dots and hit Minimize — which effectively hides the app. Then you go open the app again, and it’s now separate. But! If you minimize a non-full-screen window, it sends that app to its own pile but leaves in Stage Manager. But only if there are other apps in the pile. Does that make sense to you? Me neither.

There’s really no discernible mental model to help you understand how Stage Manager works, and it often doesn’t seem like anyone at Apple has used this thing for very long. Why does every app, including Netflix and games and other obviously full-screen apps, open into Stage Manager? If I only have one app open, is that a pile? What if I want to have one app in two piles? If I open a link in my Slack / Safari pile, why does that link take me to a whole different pile?

Ultimately, there is exactly one thing I love Stage Manager for: opening three iPhone-sized apps side by side simultaneously. I have a pile that includes Messages, Slack, and my email, and it’s now my iPad’s communication hub. It’s great. But the thing about that feature, and the thing about all of Stage Manager’s features, is that they’d be much better if the iPad just allowed you to do free-form, multiwindow multitasking, the way you can open and freely manipulate app windows on a Mac or a PC.

A screenshot of an iPad with four apps moving around in Stage Manager.
Moving apps around in a pile isn’t terribly difficult, but it’s also not terribly intuitive.
Image: Apple / David Pierce

Embrace the mess

Users have been clamoring for free-form windowing on their iPads for years, and Apple has steadfastly refused to give it to them. For a while, Apple cited performance and battery life as the primary concerns when it came to multitasking, which is presumably why Stage Manager isn’t supported on the new base-model iPad or older versions of the Air and Pro. But the new iPad Pro runs the same chip as the new MacBook Air, and that thing will happily take all your windows and tabs any way you want to configure them — there’s clearly plenty of power to go around here. 

More recently, Federighi’s explanation for not offering free-form multitasking is essentially that it’s too easy to make a mess. “You open one thing, and you go get the next thing, and it piles on top of that,” he told Daring Fireball’s John Gruber on The Talk Show podcast right after WWDC. “So you’re constantly either living in the mess, or you’re cleaning up after yourself constantly as you go.” He then said the iPad team arrived at Stage Manager from the opposite direction: “You had what was a clean experience by default, a single window at a time, but where you wanted to bring in more.” 

When the first iPad launched in 2010, it was all about full-screen focus

Federighi’s explanation points to the iPad’s biggest problem: Apple isn’t sure how it’s supposed to work. When the first iPad launched in 2010, it was all about full-screen focus. During the launch event, Steve Jobs sat comfortably in an armchair and scrolled through websites and email, frequently using words like “focus” and “immersive.” He kept talking about how big everything was on the iPad’s screen. Jobs talked about iPhone apps, but not putting three of them on the screen at once — he talked about blowing them up to see them on the larger display (which, to be fair, was a bad idea in its own right). Multitasking, as we’ve come to know it on laptops and desktops, was simply never part of the idea.

The company has a complicated history with multitasking in general. Jobs was famously and loudly against the entire concept — he believed in helping people focus on one thing at a time, not in helping them overwhelm themselves with windows. In Jobs’ mind, the best thing to do for users was to make it easy to switch between tasks rather than do several tasks at once. 

For years, what Apple meant by “multitasking” on mobile devices was making it easy to switch between apps and making sure those apps were up to date. When Jobs showed off iOS 4 in 2010, for instance, the “multitasking” he demoed was the new switcher — double tap to bring up a row of icons showing your most recent apps. Even when Apple launched features for the iPad like Split View and Slide Over, it always framed them as quick interrupters. Add something to your shopping list; drag a photo from Files to your email. It was always about switching, not multitasking.

The iPad was always much more iPhone than Mac, too. It had a closed ecosystem, offered less access for developers and accessories, and tightly controlled how everything worked. More recently, though, as the iPad has become more powerful and as Apple has come to see its tablet as a capital-p Productivity device, it has tried to embrace some more openness and keep that sense of full-screen focus that Jobs loved so much about the tablet. And that’s just not possible. Yes, users make a mess with all the windows and tabs on their computer; that freedom also lets them work however they like, which helps them get more done. 

This tension is only becoming more acute, too. Apple is now all-in on keyboard attachments for iPads — it even moved the camera on the new 10th-gen iPad to the center in landscape mode, which is as clear a sign as you’ll ever see that most people use their iPads horizontally on a desk. Apple’s also trying to break down barriers between Mac and iPad so that you can do all your work on all your devices.

Stage Manager, as a concept, makes sense on a Mac because it adds some structure to the free-form system, letting you quickly collect your mess. In that way, it reminds me of the Mac’s desktop Stacks feature, which automatically creates folders for different file types on your desktop. It’s a simple way to rein in the chaos. On the iPad, though, Stage Manager is just more and different structure on top of all the existing structure. And all that structure just turns back into chaos.