Rise of the Planet of the Lockscreens

The humble lockscreen is about to become the most important interface on your smartphone

Lockscreens were supposed to be a subordinate interface -- a kind of screen saver for smartphones that told you the time and put a barrier between your phone's home screen and the world.

But soon, lockscreens will take over, moving from the least important interface on your phone to the most important.

Here's why I'm going bananas over the new smart lockscreens.

Planet of the apps

For years, some obscure apps have been available for making dumb lockscreens super smart. Power users have enjoyed them, but most people never replace their phones' default lockscreens.

One example is Slidelock Locker, which allows notifications to appear on your lockscreen and even supports touch-free viewing of those notifications.

Besides notifications, however, a range of apps have tried to put all kinds of features on top of the lockscreen.

For example, a minimalist anonymous chat app called Wut (backed by Google Ventures and others) pops messages right up on top of your lockscreen as push notifications. (You don't know who sends messages, but you do know it's one of your Facebook friends.)

There's even an app called Slidejoy that pays you to view ads on your lockscreen.

An update to the Facebook app for Android added Facebook notifications to the Android lockscreen, but a subsequent update made it go away again. It appears that Facebook was testing the feature for a future release.

Facebook clearly wants to get on that lockscreen. Remember Facebook Home? That was Facebook's attempt to replace the lockscreen with photos from your Facebook News Feed and also put messages and conversations right there on the lockscreen.

Like so many Facebook initiatives, Facebook Home fizzled and the company disbanded the team.

Lockscreen upgrades have been even more rare on iOS because they require a jailbreak.

LockInfo and IntelliscreenX are examples of iOS lockscreen replacers, which bring notifications, RSS feeds and other features front and center.

Apps for power users are nice, but lockscreens that are teeming with options and functions are about to become mainstream.

Android: L is for 'lockscreen'

Google's code names for versions of the Android operating system have proceeded in alphabetical order and, since alpha and beta, they have been the names of sugary desserts and snacks: Cupcake, Doughnut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat.

That stopped when Google offered an early peak at its upcoming Android release: Apparently unable to come up with a name in time for the preview, the company just referred to it as the "L" release.

But based on what has been made public so far, I think the L should stand for Lockscreen.

At its Google I/O developers conference in late June, the company talked about lockscreen changes in the L release.

For starters, Google is changing how you unlock an Android phone with the L release of the operating system. Instead of touching and dragging the lock icon in a specific direction, you can unlock by swiping upward anywhere on the screen. Swiping from the left side to the right launches the phone app. Swiping from the right side of the screen to the left still launches the camera app as before.

If you've set up your phone with a password, PIN or other security mechanism, you typically have to input that before you can access the phone proper -- unless you take advantage of another L feature (borrowed from the Moto X) that grants access without a password or PIN in the presence of any user-designated Bluetooth device, such as an Android Wear watch or a headset.

Best of all, Google is adding notifications to the L lockscreen. These can be swiped away or opened with a tap to select and another tap to open. Some notifications are hinted at but not shown for privacy purposes. Swiping down reveals these hidden notifications.

Apple's next lockscreen

Apple talked about its next mobile operating system, iOS 8, at its WWDC developers conference in early June, before Google I/O.

One of the most interesting features of iOS 8 is the ability to show apps on your lockscreen -- even if you don't have the app installed -- triggered by iBeacon.

OK, let's back up a minute. iBeacon is Apple's close-quarters location technology, which can enable your phone to figure out its location to within a foot or so.

The classic example for combining iBeacon awareness and the lockscreen, and the one Apple demoed, is Starbucks. When you arrive at a Starbucks location, your phone detects the store's iBeacon system, identifies the store and puts a Starbucks icon on your lockscreen. If you've got the Starbucks app installed, tapping it launches the app. If you don't, tapping downloads the app.

Apple's new "Continuity" initiative (which features technologies that will enable you to move from one Apple device to another -- say, from a MacBook Pro laptop to an iPhone -- and keep working on the same document on each device) also has an elegant use for the iOS 8 lockscreen. Whenever you're working on a document on your other device, an icon for the application will appear on your iOS 8 lockscreen. So, for example, if you're in the middle of crafting an email on your iMac and have to leave the house, you'll see the Mail icon on your smartphone. By tapping it, you'll open that same draft email and be taken to the same place in the message where you left off. The feature will work on most Apple apps, and probably third-party apps that support the feature.

The lockscreen used to be a dumb, low-function feature designed simply to put up a screen to prevent people from seeing what's on your phone. Increasingly, however, what's on your phone is showing up on your lockscreen.

While gadget enthusiasts have had third-party options for loading their lockscreens with features for a while, the next versions of both Android and iOS will mainstream the use of lockscreens for all kinds of creative features. Everyone will suddenly be using their lockscreens heavily.

That's going to trigger an app war. Apps that don't appear on the lockscreen will be relegated to second-class status. Therefore, many app makers will be clamoring to support lockscreen functionality -- and they'll be trying to convince you to grant permission for it.

Get ready. The world is about to get turned upside-down. The dumb, nearly useless lockscreen is about to become the most prime real estate on a phone. And the apps not on that lockscreen will be mostly out of sight, out of mind.

This article, " Rise of the Planet of the Lockscreens," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.

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