Notifications: A Monotasking Sentiment in a Multitasking OS

This editorial covers push notifications, specifically alerts, on the iPhone and iPod touch (not the iPad, which is even more pathetic). It compares notifications found in iOS to those found in Android, which is another popular smartphone platform.

As of iOS4, every third generation device supports multitasking. And you know what? It works. Even if it is an ‘illusion,’ it’s a good one. With iOS4, Apple has leveled the playing field, in terms of features by operating system. Android, webOS, iOS. They all enjoy multitasking. While each are implemented differently, it does the same thing: You can listen to Pandora while updating Facebook. You can check an email, and switch back to a game that’s at the place you left it. You can leave a voice note in Evernote while downloading a new app. The point is, it multitasks.

But what happens when someone comments on your Facebook status? That’s right, the all-knowing, social security stealing, kid devouring¬† pop-up. And it demands that you acknowledge it. So, how does that make sense? Now that we have the ability to multitask with the (double) tap of a button, shouldn’t we be able to respond to notifications as we become ready?

Well, it turns out that, shockingly enough, there is such thing as a non-intrusive notification. And iOS already has a small implementation of it. I’m talking about Android’s notification bar. I’ll spell it out for ya: In Android, we get notifications that show up in the status bar (similar to the location alert on iOS4). If you are interested, you simply tap the status bar and drag down. Then you have the notification screen, which shows emails, tweets, and whatever else you’ve set to alert you to. In iOS 3.0+, we have the following notification types:

  • Sounds: Plays an audible alert
  • Alerts: Displays an alert on the screen
  • Badges: Displays an image/number on the application icon

Out of those, the most intrusive, and un-Apple, has to be the alerts. What are alerts? Alerts are the annoying little pop-ups that can happen at any time. Regardless of what you are doing, you can be interrupted. Browsing the web, playing Archetype, tweeting, whatever. Your attention is fair game. In an alert, you have two options. You have the option to close it, meaning that when it comes time to respond, hitting the home button and scrolling to the app that requires your attention is the only option. Also available is the contextual ‘View Event’ button. This yanks you out of the current app, and throws you into something else. So, instead of the non-intrusive, user-friendly, Apple-esque location awareness notification that alerts you whenever something is using the GPS, cell triangulation, or Skyhook location APIs, you get this –>

Apple can’t just blatantly copy another feature from a rival OS. But they don’t have to. Nobody can tell me that Apple, the second most profitable company in the States, the company that kick started the second generation of smartphones, can’t do notifications right. This just goes back to an old slogan of Apple’s; ‘Think different.’ How does throwing a box with a brief description and two options in front imply anything other than mundane thoughts?

But so far, that’s been the problem. Users are fine with it ‘just working.’ After all, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But it is Apple. In the next year or so, things like this will come into play. As hardware reaches a barrier (battery capacity), what the OS does and how it does it is more important than ever. I am nitpicking here; that’s what it has come down to now. Both iOS and Android multitask. They both have huge app markets. They both browse the web phenomenally. The notifications, though, are far from equal. The badges are a step in the right direction, but the alerts are three steps in the wrong direction.

My point here is this: ever since push notifications were implemented in iOS 3.0, we have been happy with them. Why? Because it’s better than not having them. But in the past three weeks, I’ve been playing with an HTC DROID Incredible. I have seen what Google is doing, and it is impressive. I’m an Apple guy, and I want them to step up to the plate. But, I know now that if they don’t, others will. With any of the faults Android has (fragmentation), I keep coming back to one major boon. The notifications. In my opinion, Google out-Apple’d Apple on that one.

But will things change? I can only hope so. Now that the glaring omission of multitasking has been handily smoothed over, Apple’s attention has to turn to something for the next major update. Hopefully notifications, because they need some tender love and care from Steve Jobs and Co.

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