Is Apple planning to overhaul iOS notifications?

Notifications on the iPhone and iPad are cryptic, difficult to deal with, and look dated - and Apple just may have a plan to revamp them in its next iOS release.

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Yesterday, I posed the question as to whether or not parts of Apple's iOS interface had become stale and dated. I looked at three areas in particular: the static home screen, the lock screen that displays virtually no useful information beyond date and time, and the notification system. While there's no guarantee that Apple will update any of them in the next iOS release (most likely to come along with new iPhones early this summer), there is some evidence that the notification system will get a major update in the next major iOS release expected early this summer.

Let's start with a look at the mess that is Apple's current notification setup.

The notification system in iOS is both dated and far from user friendly. Notifications simply appear as bubbles in the center of the screen that interrupt any tasks or apps until you either respond to them or ignore them. If you choose to ignore a notification, you'll never see or hear from it again. If you choose to respond to a notification, you'll immediately be transported from whatever you're currently doing to the app that issued it – not a good approach to the way most of us work.

On top of those issues, notifications often stack on top of each other. In the case of calls, voicemails, and text messages, all missed events are grouped into a single notification that simply lists the number of missed events (as opposed to display names, phone numbers, or message previews as individual events do). In the case of app notifications, you're like to just see the most recent notification from a single app. And when multiple apps issue notifications, the bubbles stack on top of each other. Even worse, notifications displayed on the lock screen often disappear when you unlock a device, giving you little chance to respond or even review the notification.

The system has gone largely unchanged since the original iPhone release, where notification were only issued for calls, voicemails, and texts. At that point, the system actually worked fairly well and, combined with badges of missed items on app icons, was an improvement over past mobile phone notification models. Unfortunately, iOS has evolved significantly since then while the notification system hasn't.

That's not to say other platforms have perfected notifications. webOS has probably done the best job so far with its notification bar and the ability to review notifications when you're ready to rather than putting them front and center. The system also makes reviewing and acting on notifications very simple and is one of the features of webOS that gets a lot of praise (another feature being its multitasking card view).

Now, let's move onto to what Apple may be doing to fix the problem.

First, Apple may be moving towards a notification system similar to webOS. The company hired (or, more accurately re-hired) Rich Dellinger, the man who originally designed the webOS notification system for Palm. When he returned to Apple last year, there was a lot of expectation that the iOS notification system would get a major upgrade. While that hasn't happened yet, there is a strong possibility that Dellinger has been charged with that upgrade and that it is intended for the next major release.

Adding fuel to assumption is a recent report from Cult of Mac, which reports that Apple is not only planning an overhaul of iOS notifications but is looking to buy a smaller company to aid in the process. Although the site's anonymous source claims not to know the name of the company, he or she does know that it is a company with a notification-type app in Apple's App Store. That would make the process of taking an existing tool and reworking it into the core of iOS much easier than starting from scratch or porting foreign code to iOS.

Cult of Mac further speculates that the most logical choice of app is Boxcar, a free app and web service that can deliver push notifications from a wide range of services (Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS feeds, Foursquare, and Google Voice to name just a handful). This certainly seems like a reasonable assumption.

Whether this purchase plan turns out to be true or not, I hope that it is true that Apple is planning to revamp its notification system, particularly on the iPad. The recent previews of HP's TouchPad and Google's Honeycomb version of Android both showed significant notification improvements that are designed to take advantage of the unique features of a tablet device.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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