Notifications and the Web

I’m guessing most of us use some sort of notifications system within our day-to-day workflow. On our smartphones and tablets, we get sounds, alerts and other visualisations to bring new or modified information to our tablet and even on the traditional computer, most of us here a unique chime everytime an email hits our inbox.

For any fans of The Office, you might remember, a service the character Ryan Howard setup based around the concept of an aggregated notifications service which handles all of a user’s alerts and sends them out to each one of their platforms. If was presented in a comedic way in the show, but I think there’s a strong case for a service like that.

The Current State of Notifications

Most of my notifications throughout the day come from my email and Twitter, but I also encounter alerts from a lot of the native apps I run on my devices. However, I also use a lot of web apps but, unfortunately, their alerts are exclusive to their site so I have to actually visit the service before I’m notified of anything important (if an accompanying native app is not being run).

I’ve identified two core problems with the state of notifications in software as a whole: we don’t have a very good system for web apps and the systems covering alerts are generally exclusive to a specific platform, or even app. The former might be closer to being solved, but the latter still remains a big issue.

Mozilla Bring Notifications to the Web

Mozilla is looking to close the gap between web and native apps when it comes to push notifications. The company, perhaps best known for the browser Firefox, has outlined a system that will allow websites to alert users on their desktops or mobile devices.

Chrome has had a quasi-notification system across some extensions. Image courtesy of Lifehacker.

Mozilla developer Jeff Balogh explained how the system works on his blog.

  1. The website gets a URL where it can send notifications to the user. The URL points to the Notification Service, and is a secret between the user and the website.
  2. The site sends a notification to the Notification Service.
  3. The Notification Service delivers the message to Firefox on the desktop, on Android, on Boot to Gecko, or on iOS through Firefox Home; we’ll find the right place to deliver the message.

As Matthew Guay pointed out to me, similar services exist, although in much more exclusive terms than Mozilla’s offering. For example, Google’s Chrome has played host to many notification systems, primarily through extensions, that integrate with the Google web apps like GMail.

Where’s the Central Notification Centre?

Apple fans will recognise the name Notification Centre, but virtually every platform has a unique system for aggregating notifications from different apps. However, even on devices in the same platform, the contents of said system are unique to the native apps running on that platform. There’s no universal connection, but that’s what we need.

Personally, i’d love to see some sort of web-powered centre for all notifications across all apps on all devices, much like the comedic WUPHF concept. Mozilla is somewhat doing this through their introduction of a notification system that does not require the webpage to be open, but it’s still unique to their platform and likely won’t be integrated across the wealth of consumer electronics.

Notification Centre provides an aggregated notifications view within iOS 5.

And, thanks to Apple’s stubbornness over their walled garden approach, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see notifications from the Android apps on your phone on your iPad. However, Apple’s ecosystem remains the best out there, so if there’s anyone who could introduce such a central notifications centre, it would be Apple.

In an age where we’re increasingly mobile, the ecosystem is becoming ever so important. Living inside Apple’s gives me the opportunity to have all my music, all my video, all my emails and pretty much everything else with me, whatever device I’m browsing on, but I still have to check every web app and every device in order to get all my alerts. It could be so much easier.
Would you like to live in a world where you could browse all your notifications, regardless of origin, in one place? I know I would. Or, it could just mean we’re all more bombarded with notifications than ever…

Digitals from Chris Crutchfield on Vimeo.