Back when phones were just phones, things were much simpler. There wasn’t such a thing as your ability to load thousands of apps on it, and therefore, the phone only kept you up-to-speed with what the phone could do. It’s funny how dramatically things have changed in the last five years though. Just yesterday, I was skimming through my phone bill and I noticed that I sent no text messages and made only a handful of calls during the whole month. Skype and Whatsapp have turned into my main tools for communication; just like many of the other apps I’ve got loaded on my iPhone or iPad.
Many of you may not remember this, but in my opinion, the turning point for Facebook was when they built their first app. You could navigate through their service on a mobile browser, but only the app was capable of notifying you of any likes or comments. Notifications were, in a way, the secret sauce that made today’s largest social network, a hit. The app allowed the service to interact with you, which in a way is like having your friends interact with you in real time.
The irony about iOS is that simplicity is embraced by clutter. Just like Facebook, every app can interact with you in real time, and there’s no limit to the amount of apps that you can load on your phone. Surely you can avoid it by just loading certain essentials on your phone, but Apple wouldn’t be boasting the 600,000 apps on their App Store if it weren’t because they feel that their main selling point is precisely in the numbers. If you want to do more, you need more apps, and even though the paradigm works for now, it’s only a matter of time before things get annoying.
iOS 5 and 6 have done some great changes to deal with the clutter of notifications, but I still feel that their efforts fall short in dealing with the magnitude of the problem. See, there is nothing annoying about Notification Center as it is, but more the lack of control in what should and should not be a notification. It makes sense for a messenger app to notify you of any messages, but it’s annoying for a game to use this same system in order to bug you with other apps you can purchase. I know you can switch these off for specific apps, but try asking anybody that’s not a power user to accomplish that task.
Marketing can be as great as it is intrusive. Can you imagine being woken up as you travel on a bus or a plane by a salesman that’s been allowed to market his products on your trip? Or playing your favorite song as you walk down a mall and being interrupted by the sales guy in the store at the left? Annoying isn’t it? Now let’s flip it over. Can you imagine getting a call and not being notified? Or getting a message from a close friend and not being notified?
By now, I’m sure you get my point as to why apps should be controlled. There are things that are important to me and that I want to receive in real time, and things that shouldn’t be allowed to bother me in real time. It’s ok for an app to give you updates on deals and other options whenever you’ve chosen to launch it, but the Notifications API should be closed to anything that wasn’t designed with the purpose of communication.
Notifications should be filtered
If apps can’t be controlled, Plan B could be that things get filtered. Notifications Center should have a big “Others” button that digs any advertising away from what’s important to you. The key factor here is that Apple needs to remember that a phone should be a phone first. Communications should be prioritized over anything else and you should be given the option to determine what falls into the “Others” filter and what doesn’t depending on your needs. You should be allowed to swipe the other stuff away with just one swipe, or open it at your own will.
Then there’s Apple’s new “Do Not Disturb” feature. For those of you that have used it, I’m sure you understand my frustration. It does a great job in blocking calls and notifications, but it only works when your phone or tablet is on standby. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be disturbed when I’m reading a book, or using my iPad to write this editorial, or while I’m watching a movie. I wish the button worked at all times and not just in certain scenarios. The fact of the matter is, it disturbs me more when I’m using it and want to focus on what I’m doing, than when I have it on the table.
You’ve never seen a printed book alert you of a phone call, nor does a portable game console interrupt your game for a message. Convergence will never be reached if devices aren’t able to adapt to the key reasons you’ve chosen it to substitute your printed book or magazine, while you’re using it for that purpose.
The Bottom Line
Everybody uses his or her phone in a different fashion. Some just want to make phone calls, and others want it to do everything. Apple is one of those companies that prefers to strip your device from your liberty to choose what’s best, in order to avoid complexity and clutter. I’m sure that works for a certain portion of the market, but the rest of us feel left out. Third party apps bring great functionality to your device, but at the expense of clutter.
The launcher paradigm in Android is probably my best example of something well done. People fill it with widgets of what they care about, and keep the app tray filled with the rest of the stuff they’ll want to deal with by choice. Windows Phone brings a solution that’s just as elegant with its “Me” tile. I won’t deny that things are a lot better now with Notifications Center, but it still needs work. If tablets and smartphones are going to replace game consoles, portable DVD players and printed magazines or books, they should start by making sure that the device can act like a real book when you want it to.