Facebook last week launched a news app called Notify. I know. Boring, right? Another news app. But there is a reason behind Facebook’s seemingly innocuous decision.
At first glance, Notify is pretty standard. Notify launched with 70 publisher partners covering a wide variety of interests, and you can choose which publications to get notifications for.
What's different about Notify is that its medium is the iOS lock screen. (The app is for U.S. iOS users only for now.) When you tap on the notification, you're taken to the Notify app, where a content creator's mobile page is displayed. In other words, the app is basically a browser that throws notifications up when a new story comes in.
Some of the content sources provide news stories. But others give you updates on things like sports scores, weather reports, stock prices and flight deals.
Ultimately, however, access to the full story is mostly a just-in-case proposition. Most users will undoubtedly get only the notification for most stories.
And therein lies what I believe is the true competitive situation and why the war over lock screens has begun. Facebook is probably aware that the Facebook News Feed is not a great source of breaking stories and other news, at least not as good as Twitter. Facebook is aware that many Twitter users interact with the site on a mobile app. So before users can even unlock their phones to check Twitter, Facebook wants to be on that lock screen with a Twitter-like rundown on what's new. Like Twitter, Notify lets you "retweet" notifications from the iOS lock screen. By swiping to the left over a notification, you get the option to "re-share," and are presented with a wide range of media on which to do that re-sharing. These include Twitter, Facebook and others.
Notify sounds like a new strategy for Facebook. But in fact, it's perfectly in line with Facebook's thinking in recent years.
Remember Facebook Home? Back in April 2013, HTC and Samsung released the first Facebook Home devices, which used Facebook's custom user interface as the first screen you would see when you turned on the phone. It enabled Facebook friends to remain on screen in a little circle, and provided instant access to notifications, the camera app and other features. Facebook Home flopped, and it was withdrawn from the market. But it's clear that Facebook has wanted for years to be the first thing you see when you light up your smartphone.
Facebook Notify is also in line with Facebook's grand design of maximizing valuable smartphone "shelf space." Instead of adding features to the main Facebook app, Facebook has recently been pursuing a strategy of rolling out new features as separate apps. That's why the company made its Messenger feature a stand-alone app, allowing people to use it to send messages to anyone with a Facebook account -- even if they're not Facebook friends.
The Facebook ideal is that several of the apps on your phone will be Facebook apps (Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Paper). But if you think about it, these are all apps you're likely to want notifications for. Lock screens, especially on iOS, could easily be dominated by notifications from apps owned by Facebook for millions of users. And that’s Facebook’s master plan.
It's also worth pointing out that Notify gives Apple Watch users watch notifications automatically, without having to launch a specific Apple Watch app.
Facebook has been hesitant to embrace the Apple Watch, Android Wear and other smartwatch platforms. I suspect that the company is all about massive scale when it comes to users. It doesn't want to be associated with any platform that will garner just a few million users.
But it also doesn't like screens that don't have a big Facebook presence. By dominating smartphone notifications, it will also dominate smartwatch notifications, which often mirror what's happening on the phone.
Whatever you may think of its be-everywhere strategy, Facebook is really onto something with its desire to treat the lock screen as the medium.
Another iOS app that does something similar, and probably better, is Inside.com's awkwardly named TL;DR (the initials for "too long; didn't read"). Like Notify, TL;DR involves linking to a token app that presents content from various publishers. But mostly, the content is meant to be "consumed" from the lock screen.
The lock screen is also being used as a note-taking medium. Microsoft offers an Android app called Parchi that's designed to allow you to take notes directly on the lock screen.
And a wide range of apps use the Android lock screen as an advertising medium. Users can either get paid for installing and running one of these apps (one pays $6 per month) or get points that can be redeemed for gift cards by watching or reading ads that the app displays. The apps in this category include Slidejoy, Slide, SlidePak, Cash Slide, Latte Screen and others.
Most of these are targeted at specific Asian countries, such as Pakistan or Korea. Still, as lock screen real estate becomes more valuable, and the price of manufacturing a smartphone drops, it's likely that some phones in some markets will be made available at no cost or with free wireless accounts as long as lock screen ads can't be turned off.
The use of the lock screen as a bona fide communications medium has existed on the fringe for a while. But with the launch of Notify, Facebook is bringing the lock screen into the mainstream as a coveted space for content. And that means other companies will start coveting lock screen space as well.
The good news is that if your lock screen gets too busy, you can always just slide to unclutter.