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In computing, multitasking is the concurrent execution of multiple tasks (also known as processes) over a certain period of time. New tasks can interrupt already started ones before they finish, instead of waiting for them to end. As a result, a computer executes segments of multiple tasks in an interleaved manner, while the tasks share common processing resources such as central processing units (CPUs) and main memory. Multitasking automatically interrupts the running program, saving its state (partial results, memory contents and computer register contents) and loading the saved state of another program and transferring control to it. This "context switch" may be initiated at fixed time intervals (pre-emptive multitasking), or the running program may be coded to signal to the supervisory software when it can be interrupted (cooperative multitasking).
Multitasking does not require parallel execution of multiple tasks at exactly the same time; instead, it allows more than one task to advance over a given period of time. Even on multiprocessor computers, multitasking allows many more tasks to be run than there are CPUs.
Multitasking is a common feature of computer operating systems since at least the 1960s. It allows more efficient use of the computer hardware; when a program is waiting for some external event such as a user input or an input/output transfer with a peripheral to complete, the central processor can still be used with another program. In a time-sharing system, multiple human operators use the same processor as if it was dedicated to their use, while behind the scenes the computer is serving many users by multitasking their individual programs. In multiprogramming systems, a task runs until it must wait for an external event or until the operating system's scheduler forcibly swaps the running task out of the CPU. Real-time systems such as those designed to control industrial robots, require timely processing; a single processor might be shared between calculations of machine movement, communications, and user interface.
Often multitasking operating systems include measures to change the priority of individual tasks, so that important jobs receive more processor time than those considered less significant. Depending on the operating system, a task might be as large as an entire application program, or might be made up of smaller threads that carry out portions of the overall program.
A processor intended for use with multitasking operating systems may include special hardware to securely support multiple tasks, such as memory protection, and protection rings that ensure the supervisory software cannot be damaged or subverted by user-mode program errors.
The term "multitasking" has become an international term, as the same word is used in many other languages such as German, Italian, Dutch, Romanian, Czech, Danish and Norwegian.