The new interactive notifications in Apple's iOS 8 promise to change how you use your iPhone. But some of the changes, at least at first, may not be ones you like."
Interactive notifications will give end users and developers entirely new ways of interacting with apps, and of being aware of what's going on in your digital world and responding to it. But it also means that you could be hit with a surge of intrusive, importunate, cajoling, promoting, demanding interactions from businesses trying to leverage their iOS apps. The good news: they may finally be wising up to the fact that less is more.
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Businesses have been among the most aggressive users of notifications in an effort to create "mobile moments" to engage the user, according to Brent Hieggelke, chief marketing officer for Urban Airship, a Portland, Ore., vendor that offers a hosted service for companies to manage these kinds of mobile interactions on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and soon Windows Phone devices. "Our customers use us to drive engagement via push messaging and in-app messaging."
For plenty of mobile users, this is simply the mobile, digital equivalent of junk mail. And it makes plenty of users really, really mad.
"This industry started off in a broadcast mindset," Hieggelke says. "A business has something it wants to say so the idea was 'blast it out to everyone who has our app.' But now companies are trying to deliver extremely relevant messages to their consumers. If you don't do that, you are basically interrupting them. And people will not tolerate being interrupted on their smartphone."
Notifications let an app that is running in the background tell its user that it has something for their attention, such as a message or a scheduled appointment. Notifications can be local, which are scheduled by an onboard app and delivered to the same device, or remote, which are sent by an app developer's server to the Apple Push Notification Service (APNS), which then directs the notification to the corresponding app on a specific device. The user hears an audible sound, or sees either a banner with information appear on screen or a "badge" (an image or number) appear on the app icon.
Today, you can view notifications in the Notification Center, from any screen including the Lock screen, just by swiping down from the top of the screen. But until now, if the notification is for another app, you have leave the app you've been in, to take any action on the notification.
In iOS 8, the notification can present you with options for direct actions, which you can take without leaving the app that you're using. The concept is deceptively simple. But some, such as Wired's Matt Honan, thinks this change will redefine the smartphone interface.
"[T]his interactivity is not just limited to system apps," he writes in a recent blogpost. "Third-party developers can take advantage of this new capability as well, so you could comment on something on Facebook, respond to a tweet, or even check in on Foursquare. But others are going to be radical, stuff we haven't imagined yet."
Of course, if it can't be imagined yet, it's hard to be certain that it will actually be radical. More importantly, the real radicalism may lie in Apple's major improvements in iOS 8 (and OS X Yosemite) to its inter-process communications (XPC) APIs, which let developers create fine-grained services that handle specific tasks for an application, including interactions with other apps. [Daring Fireball's John Gruber has a short post about the XPC improvements.]
But in any case, iOS interactive notifications do create a new vector for interrelating users and apps and data. And businesses are already getting their own notifications about how important this change can be.
"There is an incredible amount of potential for businesses to improve their app's stickiness and drive continued engagement, even without having their end-users directly in the app," writes Kelly O'Regan, in a blogpost at Solstice Mobile, on "How iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Will Change Your Business." Solstice Mobile focuses on helping enterprises use mobile technology to "optimize engagements with their employees, customers, and partners."
O'Regan identifies several ways in which interactive notifications can create new interactions: enroll bank customers in a new cash-back bonus program, validate fraudulent activity, reload a Starbucks cash card, ask for simple direct feedback (about last night's dinner at a restaurant), or tell you that an item on your wish-list item just came back into stock and let you add it directly to your shopping cart without leaving your current app.
"Now is the time to start thinking about your business strategy for using interactive notifications," she encourages her prospects [emphasis in original].
That's true for any given company with a mobile app and a desire to cement its relationship to customers. But it raises the prospect of every company with a mobile app and desire to cement their relationship with their customers doing exactly the same thing.
Urban Airship's Hieggelke warns that companies have to not just think about using the new notifications but to think about them very carefully. "The penalties for 'bad push' are extreme," he says, referring to notifications that are irrelevant, badly timed, intrusive or all of the above. "Users can ignore you, shut you out, or delete your app. And deleting your app is the most likely reaction: it's real easy to delete the app compared to [the multiple steps of] going into the app and adjusting the settings."
For the past three years, Urban Airship has been promoting the idea of "good push" which is based on the insight that "more is not better," Hieggelke says. Notifications are valued, even welcomed, by users when they are relevant to their interests and needs.
Urban Airship compared the response rate (called "lift") of broadcast notifications versus targeted notifications, for over 1,000 apps and one billion pushes using their platform. "Targeting gives you almost a 300 percent lift over broadcasting," he says. "Good push done well becomes a feature, a strength, of the app."
The highest lift rates were for gambling apps, which are more common in Europe. Entertainment apps had the next highest lift, in part because notifications were fine-tuned to time of day -- different messages for morning in a coffee shop compared to for evening in a pub.
For many apps, users emphatically want certain types of notifications. "This is a triple opt-in channel," Hieggelke says. First, just by selecting and installing the app, users have taken a big step in saying 'I want this on my device." Second, they have to explicitly opt in to push notifications from the app. Finally, if the app also is requesting data on the user's location, the user has to explicitly grant that also.
Walgreens' Duane Reade pharmacy chain is beta testing a sophisticated marriage of push notifications and Apple iBeacons at 10 of its stores in New York City. The latest version of its iOS app adds support for the in-store Bluetooth iBeacons. Once inside the store, the app can be switched to in-store mode "where users will have access to their loyalty card, saved coupons, a floor map of the store, a product locator and product scanning."
Eventually, a drugstore that automatically refills your prescriptions can send you a notice when the refill is actually ready. Instead of waiting or guessing, you can be notified immediately on your iPhone when it's available.
The new interactive notifications in iOS 8 promise to change how you -- and app developers and businesses - use your iPhone. You may not like some of the changes, if you're flooded with irrelevant alerts.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World."