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Multitasking on Windows Phone: A mixed bag

The answer to whether you can do many things at once on the new device is not a simple one. The phone supports multitasking, but developers won't have free rein.

One of the key questions surrounding the new Windows Phone Series 7 devices has been whether the operating system lets you use more than one application at once.

And while Microsoft announced a bunch of different details about the new phones, it wasn't exactly clear about this question. In part, that's because the answer isn't a simple yes or no.

Microsoft showed a number of Windows Phone 7 Series applications on Monday, such as Goo Splat, but the question of whether more than one program can run at once is a tricky one to answer. Microsoft

To reiterate what Windows Phone boss Andy Lees said in a CNET interview last month, Microsoft is doing some multitasking with Windows Phone, such as letting one play music and run an application or check his or her calendar while talking on the phone. In an interview, corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore said the underlying Windows CE core on which Windows Phone 7 Series is based does allow multitasking. Windows Phone uses that, he said, to do things like fetch and process Web pages and e-mail in the background.

At the same time, Belfiore said Microsoft isn't planning on letting developers bank on being able to run in the background. Instead, he said, the company is more focused on making sure programs are able to save their place when something else takes the foreground.

"It's highly likely we will suspend (applications running in the background) when a device gets to a low memory state. Microsoft also announced on Monday that Windows Phone 7 Series will have a push notification system that allows programs to get updates and alert the user even when they are not running.

The devil is in the details here, though. For example, one can play music using the built-in Zune player while doing another task, but that ability wouldn't extend to a third-party music application using its own player technology. Belfiore said Microsoft is still exploring whether developers might be able to write music applications that call on the Zune player to run media and therefore could support multitasking.

Another tricky area is whether developers can write native code for the phone, rather than choosing to develop in managed code like XNA or Silverlight. In general. the answer is no, but there may well be some exceptions. For example, Microsoft has said that although Flash won't be ready at launch, it's open to having the popular browser plug-in run on its phone. Microsoft also said that mobile operators and hardware makers may get some access to write native applications.

"There are a few specific cases where we are allowing some native code," Belfiore said.