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Chapter 20

Multitasking and Multithreading

Multitasking is the ability of an operating system to run multiple programs concurrently. Basically, the operating system uses a hardware clock to allocate "time slices" for each currently running process. If the time slices are small enough—and the machine is not overloaded with too many programs trying to do something—it appears to a user as if all the programs are running simultaneously.

Multitasking is nothing new. On large mainframe computers, multitasking is a given. These mainframes often have hundreds of terminals attached to them, and each terminal user should get the impression that he or she has exclusive access to the whole machine. In addition, mainframe operating systems often allow users to "submit jobs to the background," where they are then carried out by the machine while the user can work on something else.

Multitasking on personal computers has taken much longer to become a reality. But we now often seem to take PC multitasking for granted. As I'll discuss shortly, to some extent the earlier 16-bit versions of Microsoft Windows supported multitasking but in a somewhat limited capability. The 32-bit versions of Windows all support both true multitasking and—as an extra bonus—multithreading.

Multithreading is the ability for a program to multitask within itself. The program can split itself into separate "threads" of execution that also seem to run concurrently. This concept might at first seem barely useful, but it turns out that programs can use multithreading to perform lengthy jobs in the background without requiring the user to take an extended break away from their machines. Of course, sometimes this may not be desired: an excuse to take a journey to the watercooler or refrigerator is often welcome! But the user should always be able to do something on the machine, even when it's busy doing something else.