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Notification LEDs Are A Dead Art

By Michael Fisher April 19, 2012, 3:02 pm

We've talked before about notifications being the essence of a mobile device. Half the reason for the existence of cellphones -and to a lesser extent, tablets- is to inform you of incoming comm traffic.

To that end, mobile devices are fitted with a variety of alert mechanisms. Ringtones have evolved from monotone beeps to polyphonic MIDIs to custom mp3s. The vibrating alert, that old veteran of the silent pocket prod, has remained largely the same. These two annunciators are common to most phones; with the exception of the occasional custom vibe schemes or extra-loud ringtones, manufacturers have had a hard time differentiating on the basis of notifications.


The forgotten element that sets OEMs apart in this space: notification lights. They come in a variety of flavors and sizes. Sometimes they're hidden under a hardware element like a speaker grill or a button. With the trend toward minimalism in design, sometimes they're omitted all together. The one thing they have in common in today's world: no one's getting it quite right.

The Way It Used To Be

I was in high school when mobile phones first became portable and affordable enough to carry. LEDs were a big thing then; Motorola's StarTAC and iDEN lines were quite popular when I was in high school, and both featured a persistent flashing green indicator to indicate that the device had a network connection. Some users found it annoying and turned it off, but as a lifelong lover of blinking lights, I knew once I got a phone of my own, I'd set it to flash all the time.

I was to be disappointed for years. My first few years of mobile phone ownership were marked by devices from LG and Samsung, which featured much more limited LED modes: they'd flash red on an incoming call or with a voicemail, and that was pretty much it. The duration and frequency of the flashing was unalterable, and in those days before phone "hacking" became widespread, your choice was on or off.

It wasn't until 2004 that I experienced a fully-customizable notification light, in my Sanyo SCP-5500. Six colors were supported, and all were customizable. Eight years later, I still remember the assignments. There was even a "rainbow mode" included, which would cycle the LED through all available colors.

Those were the days.

As dumbphones evolved through the middle part of the decade, OEMs allowed more and more LED customization. Even Samsung, long a holdout, added the ability to control "system lamp" events in their high-end feature devices. Home-brewed Java applications gave owners of Motorola's iDEN phones the ability to control the color of their "disco lights." Evolution on the smartphone front continued as well: third-party apps, then native settings gave Blackberry users the ability to control their distinctive flashing indicator. Windows Mobile devices included blinking LEDs more often than not. Danger's Sidekick lineup featured perhaps the best implementation, offering a slew of lamp colors for all kinds of system events right out of the box, and making apps available for even more granular customization. As 2007 approached, prospects seemed bright for a colorful new world filled with endlessly-customizable notification lights.

Then Apple came. And they decided the future was minimalism, and minimalism meant no blink-blink. And the rest of the industry decided that that was just fine with them, too. So we graduated to ...

The Way It Is

It's unfair to lay the blame for the decline of the LED entirely at the feet of Apple's designers. More directly responsible was the failing health of platforms that had historically supported notification lights: Danger was gobbled up by Microsoft, with disastrous results. RIM failed to adapt quickly enough, leaving their Blackberrys to rapidly wither on the vine. And the companies which rushed in to fill those gaps seemed apathetic about building an LED in. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn't. No one seemed to care. Even Motorola, kings of flash-ifying mobile devices, started omitting the feature from their lineup as the years wore on. Today, manufacturers seem inexplicably focused on building LEDs into only their entry-level smartphone offerings, like Motorola's Motoluxe and Sony's new low-end Xperias.

And it's not just the manufacturers behind the fractured, it-might-be-there-or-it-might-not state of the industry. Makers of mobile platforms govern when this feature is included, based on whether the OS supports it. Android, for example, provides the necessary APIs for a notification light; by contrast (leaving out the camera flash hackery), iOS does not -and no iPhone has the necessary hardware. Windows Phone exists in a kind of in-between world: some of its devices sport the blinky-blink, and some don't. RIM's Blackberry lineup continues to offer it, but no one's buying them anymore.

The last remaining reason to purchase a Blackberry.

The result: a large percentage of today's mobile phones don't feature a notification light. Because of the nature of smartphones, that leads to added inconvenience. Since a smartphone's display in standby mode is powered off, and only wakes briefly when a notification comes in, a user who wants to check his notifications needs to wake the device up to view them. Instead of delivering persistent information, an LED-less smartphone is providing precisely nothing in standby mode. This is especially egregious on Windows Phones, where one of Microsoft's big selling points has been the power of glance-able information.

Even modern devices that do feature an LED still find ways to get it wrong. For example, my webOS devices pulse the white lights in the gesture area at varying intervals when I have a message waiting. The problem: the intervals and flash rate vary at random. Whereas one would expect different blink modes to mean different notifications, they don't. There's no way to know if the flashing light means I have a missed call, an email, a text message, or what.

Even the newest version of Android isn't immune. One of the features that sold me on the Galaxy Nexus was the presence of a notification light. A real one, too; not the tiny lime-green flasher that HTC half-heartedly dumps behind the speaker grille of all their devices. The first thing I did on initial setup was to customize it, which is to say: I checked the box next to "Pulse notification light." That's the only option stock Android provides: on or off. The system selects different colors for different notifications, none of which are consistent. Sometimes flashing green means a waiting Google Voice SMS, and sometimes it's a Twitter DM. Blue used to be Facebook's color, but now it seems to include Foursquare as well. White is usually Gmail — but sometimes it's just the color for "I'm confused. Someone wants you. Just turn on the screen."

When I wanted to fix a similar problem on my Sidekick 3, six years ago, I bought an app from Danger's app store and got a whole suite of customizability for my trouble. Granted, it cost ten bucks, but it worked. Today, thanks to Android's fragmented nature, even third-party apps like Light Flow can't provide a blanket solution to my problem.

Great. The Way It Should Be

The state of the mobile-notification world, then, is an inconsistent mess that no OEM or OS maker really cares about fixing. One might even applaud Apple for simplifying the situation through its scorched-Earth, the-only-notification-light-is-no-notification-light solution. But while the simplicity of that approach is alluring, it's also lazy. And it doesn't give users all they can get.

Instead, let's put a flasher on every phone. Adding an LED to every device would be a trivial expense; this isn't 2002, when people swooned over expensive new blue LEDs and backlight colors were selling points. Putting a flashing light into every smartphone would raise costs significantly less than adding the front-facing cameras no one's using. And the beautiful part about it: the light's usually invisible when not in use. So if you don't like it, you can turn it off.

But building it in and leaving it on opens up a world of possibility for glanceable access to information. With an LED, there's no need to power on that big LCD or AMOLED panel just to see if you got a message while you were in the shower. With the power of third-party apps, a whole host of extensions to the functionality are possible: apps could use the LED to communicate weather forecasts via color, or novelty implementations like blinking out a text message in Morse code. While these things are possible on some platforms now, they only work on some phones — the lack of standardization prevents it from reaching its full potential.

I know it's just a flashing light we're talking about here, but sometimes the simplest concepts are the most useful and powerful. These devices exist to tell us things; why aren't we giving them all available tools to do so, especially the simplest and cheapest ones?

Do you miss your status light? Do you yearn for the comfort of your old coverage indicator? Or is there a third-party LED app that you can't live without? Drop a line in the comments. If my phone blinks the right color at me when the comment lands, I'll come back and read it.


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