Apple, including Steve Jobs himself, unleashed all sorts of upcoming services and software updates at their annual developer conference Monday. In fact, the amount of news is so staggering, I’m still mulling over various elements. But I thought we’d start with a discussion of the dramatically revamped and expanded notification system destined for iPhones come this fall.
Just about anyone coming from pretty much all other smartphone platforms has found Apple’s iPhone alerts a nuisance. They pop up dead center in the screen and must be acted upon before doing anything else. Get a text message or low battery notification while on a call? You need to clear it before you can end the conversation, activate the speakerphone, punch numbers for a phone tree, etc. And it’s probably even more of a disruption while gaming or watching video.
Enter iOS 5 notifications. The new system is composed of three elements, including a new in-app notification banner itself, lock screen alerts, and the Notification Center that aggregates it all. Both graphically and spatially, I’m satisfied with the new banners (above center) that are displayed at the top of display and fade out after a period of time. Likewise, I’m mostly satisfied with the Lock Screen alerts (above left) that present more than just information… but also allow you to take action. Of course, you have to trade a little privacy for convenience by enabling these notifications. But I’ve got no issues in that regard (having fewer online girlfriends than Representative Weiner). Now the Notification Center itself needs a whole lot of work prior to release.
My main problem is visual. There’s just way too much going on in the Notification Center. Removing, lightening, or replacing the dark grey linen fabric background would go a long way towards reducing the noise. Also, while Apple didn’t introduce “widgets” at WWDC… they kind of did. And I’m not sure what highly graphical stock valuations or weather have to do with primarily textual listings of incoming SMS notes and missed calls. Lastly, launching the Notification Center app requires an entirely new iOS action. On one hand, Apple does a nice job of making it available from anywhere via a single finger downward swipe. Yet there’s no indication it exists. So in some respect it’s a power user feature. But one that novices (like my mom) will accidentally trigger without knowing how to banish… other than hitting the Home button and killing whatever else was up.
So I’ve got two counter proposals… that sacrifice some convenience for perhaps more sensible usability. First, instead of a single finger swipe down to launch the Notification Center, requiring two fingers should prevent accidentally launching app (by power users and novices alike). Of course, the downside is that you probably lose the ability to operate the iPhone with one hand. The other option is to provide notifications on the spartan and rarely used search screen, which resides the left of the home screen. The bigger issue with this approach is that you’d lose the ability to access alerts from anywhere in the phone. Yet the presentation would maintain traditional iOS behavior/actions. In either case, I’d like to see some sort of graphical representation in the top status bar that alerts are available for review. Apple could also dumb the Notification Center down, presenting it as a typical app. But that’s not nearly clever or onmipresent enough for what will become a new core feature.
I’m a fan of glanceable info. Like the widgets you find on Android or Live Tiles on Windows Phone 7. And it’s something I miss on my iPhone. So I’m happy to see Apple dipping their toes in the water. But, really, that’s all it is at this time. They’ve widgetized exactly two of their native apps and, as far as I know, these hooks haven’t been made available to developers. Further, as previously discussed, this info doesn’t need to be colocated with incoming alerts in the Notification Center. Once again, I propose expanding the utility of the largely vacant and underutilized search screen by giving widgets a home… assuming Apple intends to open this functionality to developers and assuming there’d be a limit to the number they’d let us run to protect the iPhone’s notoriously smooth performance.
Anyhow, Apple has several months of work ahead of them before iOS 5 launches to the public this fall. I expect some of these visual and usability issues will be smoothed out, although a full-fledged widget platform may not rear its head until say iOS 5.2. And, who knows, perhaps a 4″ iPhone 5 would make the current Notification Center more palatable.