Smartphone notifications are key to productivity

Is your smartphone equipped to deliver and manage app notifications intelligently? Not if it's an iPhone.

When you're on the go, your phone is your lifeline to the connected world. It doesn't just deliver your messages and make calls. It also tells you what you're supposed to be doing and when, and keeps you updated on all the moving variables in your world, from social media interactions to important news. So choosing a phone that handles notifications in a clear, flexible way can be vital to your daily effectiveness.

Notifications have been at the top of my mind lately, because--despite my better judgment--I switched from my trusted Droid X to the Verizon iPhone 4 a couple of months ago. And since that time, my ability to confidently track incoming stimuli from my handset has taken a bit of a hit.

My main problem with the iPhone is that it doesn't offer a very coherent way of tracking system notifications. Instead of a single, tappable list of updates from my various apps, it greets me with a bunch of elegant-but-unhelpful bubbles that appear in chronological order based on when they came in. I have to tap through them all before I can make an informed decision about which ones were most pressing, and by the time I get through the list, I can hardly remember what the first few were. And because my phone is set to auto-lock, most of these notifications don't actually appear for me anyway once I tap in my passcode and enter the home screen, so I get little out of them.

Once I get to the home screen, I have to tap around looking for little red dots to tell me which apps need my attention. This last bit is rendered all the more frustrating by the fact that I keep my apps in folders, so I have to tap into a folder to figure out exactly which app(s) are beckoning. And if you have more than one screen full of icons to look through (I try to avoid this by using folders), you're just wasting time at this point.

By contrast to Apple's approach, most other mobile operating systems offer a fairly standard experience in which new notifications appear in a status bar at the top of the phone's screen. The best of these include the notification bars in Android and WebOS, both of which give the user a small, unobtrusive bar that says what's happening on the phone and offers one-tap access to the relevant apps.

The advantage here is obvious, at least to me: In Android, for example, you just pull down the window-shade notification menu and browse through the list to choose which of the available notifications you want to act on. Tap it, and you're taken straight to the app (and usually straight to the appropriate menu) to deal with the event appropriately. To get to the next notification, just pull the list back down again. This approach makes it easy to actively prioritize which notifications you want to address in the moment, without forcing you to do a bunch of legwork just to figure out which apps want your attention.

In practice, the difference between Apple's scattershot approach to notification management and Google's more systematic approach has had a profound impact on my ability to figure out which of the dozen recent incoming notifications on my phone need my immediate attention and which are just coming from some lifestyle app alerting me to unimportant stuff. I can try to compensate for Apple's lack of consideration by going to my productivity folder first, but that's just a hedged bet rather than an informed choice.

In short, I'm joining the chorus of critics who've expressed their disdain for Apple's half-baked iOS notifications. I had harbored hope that the most recent iOS update could possibly include an improvement to the system, but of course that didn't happen. And because Apple doesn't comment on products under development, I have no way of knowing if it ever will happen. In the meantime, I think I'll be returning to the smarter notifications of Android until Apple has a change of heart.

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Tags webOSAppleapple iphoneconsumer electronicsiosAndroidPhonesiphone 4Cell Phones

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Robert Strohmeyer

PC World (US online)

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