iOS Notifications: Problematic or Primarily Perfect?

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There’s been lots of talk lately that Apple’s notification system is seriously flawed. Some think Apple is poised to remedy that problem in iOS 5, which could be unveiled at tomorrow’s special press event. Once again, Kevin and I find ourselves at loggerheads when it comes to this debate. Here’s how our exchange went down:

Kevin: So I hear there’s an Apple event tomorrow, and it’s likely geared towards introducing the next iteration of iPad hardware. That’s all well and good, but I wonder if software will be the star of the show as Apple gives us a glimpse of iOS improvements. While I think highly of Apple’s mobile platform, I still can’t believe that after nearly four years, the notifications in iOS are so atrocious! Although I dumped my iPad for a smaller Android tablet, I still keep a new iPod touch around for apps, surfing, Netflix, email and more, but every time I turn the darn thing on to quickly check something online, I get a barrage of activity-stopping notifications. That has to change soon, and perhaps this week is the when we’ll finally see notifications become more useful and less intrusive like on other mobile platforms.

Darrell: I agree that software will most likely be the star tomorrow next to an incremental hardware update, but I’m not so sure notifications will be a big part of that lead role. I’m not denying that iOS notifications are clumsy; they are. But at the same time, I don’t think Apple will make significant changes to its existing system, for the same reason iOS doesn’t resemble Android or other mobile operating systems in a number of ways. iOS notifications may seem simple and clunky to advanced users, but they do one thing quite well: they notify. Android notifications, in my experience, require a degree of fiddling that could easily exasperate less tech-savvy device owners. iOS notifications may not be ideal, but they make sure you stand the greatest chance of seeing something, when compared to notices on other platforms.

Kevin: Hmmm… I think calling iOS notifications “clumsy” is being generous. If I want to fire up my iPod touch first thing in the morning just to scan for email that arrived overnight, I shouldn’t have to tap a dozen or more notifications from other applications before getting to the task I want to use the device for. You’re right that notifications do what they’re supposed to do, but the method is inelegant and disruptive, at least for me.

I’m glad you mentioned Android, because notifications there are the antithesis of the iOS approach. Notifications are all bundled up in a non-disruptive, pull-down “window shade.” And in my above scenario of checking email at first light, I can simply ignore the Android notifications or with one screen tap, I can dismiss them all. It might not be the most perfect approach, but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I intended to do with the device. And the notifications are always visible as small icons at the top of the screen, so there’s little chance of missing them.

Darrell: See, I would actually argue the opposite. The icons at the top of the screen are what irritate me most about Android notifications. It reminds me of the days of depending on the Windows taskbar to keep me up to date. I much prefer Apple’s simple sequential method that gives focus to one thing at a time, and I think that you’re part of a relatively small minority in terms of running into a notification pile-up when you leave the device unattended.

Recent studies suggest that iPhone users have downloaded an average of 40 apps per device. I’d argue that if you account for heavy app downloaders like myself and other tech enthusiasts, that number is on the high side when it comes to how many apps most iPhone owners are actually actively using on their device. Even with my many screens of apps, I generally only have to dismiss about two or three notices in the morning.

Apple, unlike its mobile competitors, continues to embrace a strategy of ongoing simplification when it comes to interface design. I don’t think it’ll introduce added complexity and potentially confusing elements to its mobile OS in the interest of catering to users with high technical proficiency and expectations based on a subtle awareness of how computing systems have generally worked in the past. This is the same company that doesn’t allow apps to repurpose hardware buttons, after all.

Kevin: Interesting, because I’m actually not a heavy app downloader, yet I still have a queue of notifications. Perhaps I’m just using more apps that take advantage of push notifications, but ultimately I think the keyword here is “queue.” The fact that iOS notifications are implemented in a more linear fashion than Android offers less flexibility. With Android, I can choose which of my notifications I want to act upon, instead of being forced to deal with the notification that iOS pushes atop my app.

That actually raises another point: I’ve occasionally had media activities interrupted in iOS due to a notification. That should never happen in my opinion, because I should be in charge of which notifications and activities to see on my phone, not the other way around.

I had thought that by now Apple would take advantage of Rich Dellinger, who it hired away from Palm last summer. Dellinger was the brain-child of the webOS notification system, which I find even more elegant than the one used for Android smartphones. In fact, the new Honeycomb tablet notifications are more like that of webOS. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think — no, I hope — that Apple recognizes that it still uses an sub-optimal notification system and we’ll see the fruits of Dellinger’s labor in the form of a new system soon.

Darrell: We might see a change, but I don’t think it’ll address the areas you’d like to see it address. I think Apple will keep intrusive notifications, and stick with the alert dialogs it has been using since the feature was first introduced. Why? Because those best embody the communicative purpose of visual notifications on a phone, which is still primarily a communication device, and only secondarily a means of media consumption.

That’s not to say change is impossible, but I think it’ll go a different route. Apple’s notifications aren’t deeply flawed, but they are missing one crucial element: a central dedicated notification management page. I think that’s what Apple will bake into iOS 5, if it touches notifications at all. This would simply add a notification history to existing tools, which make it even easier for users to make sure they haven’t missed anything. But if you’re hoping for more, I think it’s only fair to notify you in advance that you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Which side are you on? Keep the debate going in the comments.

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