iPhone OS 4: Is Multi-Tasking Really About Security?

Today, when the OS 4 for the iPhone family is about to be released, the most lively discussed thing is its multi-tasking. However, there hasn’t been much discussion on the importance of multi-tasking to the ordinary user, yet there are many questions on this topic, like whether it will be found useful for the company willing to safely integrate the iPhone family into its network. Besides, will this multi-tasking feature affect the carrier dearly reclaiming the biggest part of the abused bandwidth of the last mile, stacked with 90% junk email?

To start with, the iPhone already features multi-task, so it’s not such a new feature in fact. It’s already able to listen for incoming texts and phone calls, while letting music to be played with awaiting updates. The current version of the iPhone OS uses preemptively multitasking Mach/BSD kernel, exactly the same as Apple’s desktop Mac OS X. Meanwhile, consumers see multi-tasking as the ability to run more than one third-party program simultaneously like on desktops and laptops.

Actually, extensive multi-tasking is an essential even from the conventional security point of view, let alone the users’ convenience. That is not the talk about the security of the external look of the device – that’s what iPhone 4 case can do for you. That’s about the software security. Think of it: each time you create a Word document or something, there’s a large number of security processes in the background, consuming the valuable power, and, of course, sharing the CPU resources and memory. At the very least, anti-virus software, along with anti-spam, should run constantly, at the same time as the VPN and personal firewall help to secure the device completely.

The individual consumers and companies usually run various versions of security software of different brands to keep the highest rate of hostile code and activities detection. At the same time the user is busy with typing, listening, or downloading rich content. So, it comes essential for tens of millions users of Apple’s iPhone to have multi-tasking in the OS 4, because it seems to be critical just from a security point. However, it’s just a false feeling and actually doesn’t matter. Apple could do the same as Android and Windows Mobile that allow any type of application to run whenever the user wants it to, facing the same pack of conflict problems and system performance that were discovered on the ordinary PCs. As soon as Apple’s A4 processor has up to 4 cores, OS 4 would be able to separate the internal system processes from the others on one core while using the others to manage third party software.

One more potential look on OS 4 may consider multi-tasking allowing one third-party application, for example, native Safari and mail running simultaneously, while permitting two, three, or whatever number of Apple proprietary applications running, managed by a kind of Command-Shift to switch between them. In fact, the definition of multi-tasking is not “running as many applications as the user wants.” On the contrary, creating rational restrictions to keep user’s experience positive is one certain approach for the mobile OS developers.

So what would happen to security in this case? Actually, smart phones are only small computers, and are therefore subject to the same weaknesses as of the ordinary PC, letting alone jail broken iPhones. By the way, the smaller devices win in the design and look, because you won’t able to put a colorful iPhone 4 cover on your Mac to raise your mood. But if we go back to the software problems and imagine that Apple would select to let an unrestricted number of security applications to run simultaneously (multi-task), then it would imitate the state of security where the user is the responsible one for managing them all. Besides, each security application would be loaded onto and run from the endpoint. However, one should agree that although the individual consumers need security and companies require it for compliance, such unrestricted approach to security (even in OS 4 environment) faces several questions:

Since Apple’s approach depends on available intelligence, it seems that it is going to serve the user experience like that in Expose, which allows them to switch easier between the running applications. However, it’s not quite clear if it means that the consumer will be able to watch video on YouTube and then quickly enough to switch over to email, favoring it by essentially pausing YouTube. You could argue it’s multi-tasking that kernel manages. But, nevertheless, this approach still won’t allow to implement the traditional ways of securing the device. And it doesn’t matter which of the multi-tasking approach will be chosen to be introduced into iPhone OS 4 or beyond, if it fails to tackle the security problems with conventional methods. No matter if it is iPhone running OS 3 or 4, or even X, or the multi-tasking Symbian or Android, since it’s clear enough that consumers shouldn’t rely on the phone vendor for security, just as nobody thinks it to be the PC vendor’s concern for the entire period of digital century. In fact, securing all current and future versions of foreseeable mobile technology will only mean a creation of a really integrated secure smart phone framework and architecture that is able to work in the cloud.

So, if we look from a security point, it doesn’t actually matter what way Apple will choose to design multi-tasking for the OS 4. Since the user experience is a priority, we can guess that most of the consumers don’t dream about putting the security at the top of the list of what they want to do in the morning. Just imagine what can happen in couple years when over 2 billion mobile users chose to secure their device only with iPhone 4 case, but not with useful aplications? Shall we find it out?

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