Apple’s iOS 5 notifications are great, but webOS is still better

When Apple finally added cut, copy and paste support to iOS, it made the long and painful wait its customers endured completely worthwhile. Apple’s implementation was so much better than competing platforms, it really wasn’t even in the same league. The UI was fantastic and the operation was both intuitive and precise. This is what we have come to expect from Apple when it corrects its past mistakes and omissions. And yet with the introduction of a completely revamped notification system in iOS 5, the Cupertino-based technology giant took a different approach: it did not lead, it followed. I’ll elaborate…

Apple’s new notification system works thusly: when a new event triggers a notification, one of three things happens. On the lock screen, a notification will appear with an icon representing the associated application positioned to the far left of the notification. The user can either ignore the notification, or slide the icon all the way to the right side of the screen to open the appropriate app. Or, if the device is in use, a banner will display across the top of the display containing the notification. The user can either ignore it or tap it to open the appropriate app. Finally, the old notification UI may be used, causing a pop-up to display at the center of the screen until it is dismissed.

Apple also introduced the iOS Notification Center, a pull-down aggregate of all notifications that is clearly “inspired” by Android. It is an obvious refinement of Google’s notification pane though, and it also allows users to customize the number of notifications each app will display in the Notification Center. It even supports widgets and third-party developers can build their own.

The iOS 5 notification system is, without question, leaps and bounds better than the old iOS notification system. Let’s face it, though — as horrible as iOS notifications have been until now, anything would be better. The system still has plenty of room for improvement however, and unlike Apple’s cut, copy and paste implementation, iOS 5 notifications are not class-leading. Instead, the two-year-old notification UI found in webOS is still iOS’ superior.

WebOS removes the additional layer of complication introduced by the Notification Center, and Android’s notification pane before it. Notifications are represented by a single row of small icons at the bottom of the display. To view a notification after it has been displayed and minimized, the user simply taps the icon. The message then reappears and the user can either open the relevant app by tapping the notification, or dismiss it by swiping the message off the screen to the left or right. The system is incredibly simple, extremely logical and, to quote one Steven P. Jobs, “it just works.”

Another uncharacteristic oversight is Apple’s placement of the notification banner at the top of the display. While the mechanism is infinitely better than then old disruptive notifications, it’s nowhere near as smart as webOS. When a notification pops up at the bottom of a webOS phone, it acts just like an iOS 5 notification and covers part of the UI. Then, however, it is reduced to an icon that pushes the entire UI up and out of the way. This means even though the notification is occupying screen real estate, the user can continue to perform each and every function he or she could if the notification was not on the screen. It also means the notification is still easily accessible from any screen, whenever the user chooses to interact with it; there is no need for a separate drop-down pane to collect notifications.

In iOS 5, the notification banner hangs over the top of the display, obscuring the status bar and the area beneath it. Unfortunately, the area beneath the status bar is where the iOS UI places buttons that control key functions. So, for example, notifications cover most of the send button in the email app or most of the back button in messaging apps or Twitter apps. If a user tries to sneak a tap on those buttons, it is highly likely he or she will instead tap the notification by accident and leave the current app. This, some might argue, is even worse and more disruptive than a pop-up that needs to be dismissed, as seen with the old iOS notifications.

If the user does not immediately interact with the notification, it disappears into the Notification Center. For active smartphone users, this seemingly great notification hub can often become a cluttered mess until various notifications are acted on or dismissed. Apple does give users the ability to customize the number of notifications each app can display in the Notification Center, which is much appreciated, but it is still nowhere near as elegant as a single row of icons that is always visible and easy to interact with. This is what webOS affords.

There are certain areas where Apple’s system does make advancements in the space, such as the ability to customize notification behavior for individual applications. I also very much like that I can open a new message or relevant app without unlocking the device by interacting with a notification on the lock screen. Uncharacteristically, however, the behavior Apple chose for this interaction is contradictory. Elsewhere in the UI, swiping from side to side on a message gives the user the option to delete that message. On the lock screen, that same swipe gesture opens the relevant app, where logic might dictate that a swipe should dismiss notifications that are not of interest.

I really expected more from Apple. And so much more is possible.

Why can’t I dismiss a notification that appears at the top of the screen? Why can’t I dismiss individual notifications on the lock screen? Why can’t multiple notifications appear at once at the top of the screen with a better UI? Why can’t I mark a new email as read simply by interacting with a notification? Why can’t developers have access to APIs that give their users the capability to perform unique interactions with notifications that perform custom functions? All this and more might be coming down the road, but Apple has had far too long and has innovated in far too many other areas for the company to simply catch up in this crucial area of the UX.

I expected innovation.

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