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Smarter Notifications [Opinion]

You hear a chime, see a pop up notification, and feel a buzz. Someone just sent you an email and your phone, computer, and tablet are notifying you. Despite all of our technology, notifications continue to oppress the senses of those who use multiple devices. Sure, it’s great that something like an email will disappear from your notifications once it has been read (thank you, ActiveSync), but that doesn’t stop things like chat notifications or calendar alerts.

To make matters worse, most of the innovation we’ve seen in notifications has been to make notifications more accessible, not devices more aware of the user. We’ve seen devices like the TouchPad and the Pre3 (may they rest in peace) promise to push notifications to each other, but at the end of the day notifications still appeared on both devices. At some point, clearing notifications becomes a new chore, making users feel like their devices are actually hindering them from getting things done. 

The Motorola Lapdock, ASUS Padfone, and Ubuntu for Android try to solve this problem by making your Android phone fit into other form factors. It certainly solves the problem, but it restricts the number of devices you can use at the same time. For example, if your phone is also your tablet you couldn’t take a phone call very conveniently.

What users really want is for their devices to be aware of which of device they are using so that notifications appear there, not everywhere. The problem with this is not only deciding how to tell devices which one you’re using (should you have to tell it, simply creating another task to fulfill on every device or should it somehow detect your presence?), it’s also that user might have an Android phone, a Windows 8 tablet, and a MacBook. All of these ecosystems don’t work together, making controlling notifications even more of a difficult task for developers. Add in the complication of using different apps on different devices (TweetDeck in Chrome, Twitter for Android on your phone, and Plume on your Transformer Prime, for example) and syncing notifications between devices becomes even more of a nightmare.

Apple is trying to solve this problem by putting Notification Center in all iOS devices as well as OS X beginning in Mountain Lion. Apple’s implementation works but it faces the same problem of having notifications popping up on every device (and good luck hitting the tiny clear button on an iOS device in one try). More importantly, it works best if you only use iOS and OS X devices; in other words, for the vast majority of users this isn’t a solution.

That said, I think Apple is on the right track. Google could easily build on Apple’s idea, but, you know, make it work the way it should. Google could use Google accounts on Chrome on the desktop and Android on phones and tablets to unify notifications. When you log into your desktop and open Chrome, your Google account knows that you’re using your desktop so all of your notifications show up on your desktop. If everything from email notifications to text messages showed up on your desktop (all customizable, of course) and not on your phone (the data would appear on the phone, but not the notification). Then, once you start using your phone or exit Chrome, notifications would show up on your phone (or tablet, as the case may be). If someone was paranoid about maintaining where notifications show up then Google could provide a toggle to switch between devices.

There has been very little innovation in notifications. Every company seems to believe that all people want is to have every account on every device, but all that does is bombard users with notifications all over the place, many of which don’t sync with each other. Google has the opportunity to change that with truly innovative notifications that follow the user. These are the sorts of innovations that push an ecosystem and technology as a whole forward. I’d much rather see intellegent notifications before being able to check into Google+ from my glasses.

  • Eddie


  • TC Infantino

    I see what the article is saying, but I don’t see it as such a big problem.  If I don’t want notifications to come to my phone I can turn them off.  It would be harder for the device to know what I am using whether it is the computer or my phone because I leave both of them on pretty much all the time, I use skifta to access my computer files when I am not home.  When I get an email notification on the computer it pops up in the lower right of my screen and after a few seconds it disappears, and I have the notification volume fairly low so it doesn’t interupt me if I am doing anything.  Really this is not an issue for me, though I guess it might be for some.

  • Michael Quinlan

    My phone is always with me.  I get notifications on my phone, and nowhere else, so this isn’t really a problem for me.  But then again, my list of notifying apps is short: Gmail, messaging, Calendar, and Google Voice, and I can easily identify the source of the notification without looking at the phone – so I know where to look if I choose to follow-up on the notification using my desktop.

    If I used all these “social” apps and other BS people seem to crave, I’d probably go nuts.

  • Well I just want to know why did Google remove notification sync between the Android client for Google+ and the web omnibar.

    Until September 2011 I could click an notification in the omnibar that was also flashing the LED on my phone, and it would get dismissed from the Android notification bar. And vice versa.

    In September, everything changed.

    (And I think they also broke sync between different omnibars. I’m a professional translator/interpreter and I always keep Google Translate open since it’s a great thesaurus and such; and the notification counters on Translate’s and Google+’s bars often differ.)

  • hothfox

    All of Google’s things seem to work well- if I read an email on my phone, it stops being ‘new’ on my desktop and if I read it on my desktop it leaves the notifications on my phone.
    I wish Twitter would sync that way. I get notified of a new message/mention on my phone, but read it on my desktop, it doesn’t go away on my phone as being new.

  • Ron: Good write up. I just got a new job recently and my Black Berry surprisingly seems to have more options of how to notify me for what events than my Android! Especially over vibration controls, when it’s in the holster and out of the holster. Android needs to be the leader here!

  • mordyF

    I so agree to this post. I would also like to actually see the message in the notification (much like the iPhone) where it shows the whole text. There was much improvement in ICS but not enough.

  • JCopernicus

    Google notifications clear from devices once they’ve been checked on another device.

    Something’s wrong with your devices. (Google+ is the only one that hasn’t cleaned up their notification sync).

    • Google ones do, but I use more than just Google apps. 

  • Sheesh, talk about your all time first world problems!  🙂

    • First world problem: Oh my gawd, my closet is like waaaaaay smaller than the average house.

      Third world problem: No water.

  • Seems consistent with storing event information in the “cloud” — your notifications “rain down” on you from multiple directions.

    (and it’s not just from multiple devices; I get the simultaneous notifications from my calendar-integrated e-mail client and my Google-integrated browser… and, yes, my mobile devices too)

    • bakdroid

  • r0lct

    Google just needs to offer app devs to use their activesync service (if they don’t already) and then all the apps can mimic gmail’s system.

    • ActiveSync is made by Microsoft, unfortunately. 

      • r0lct

        I just meant Google’s equivalent.

  • Kit12r

    On a side note regarding syncing across devices, why can’t we sync game progress across devices?  Or am I missing something? I get very frustrated that I have to have a different progression on my tablet from my phone etc.

    • Your Google account backs up what apps you purchased, but not the data. You could copy the game data back and forth between devices, but there isn’t anything in Android set up to back up data to Google’s services. 

      • Kit12r

        Exactly what I have done a few times, but is a total PITA. Seems like giving devs a unified place to store game data on the device + stored in the cloud for syncing would make sense. Maybe when Google Drive come around??

        Just seems crazy that everything else (music, books, movies, bookmarks, etc) syncs well but not game progression. I realize this is slightly apples to oranges, but if implemented it could be a step in a new direction. 

        • Absolutely. I think there are some games that do save progress, but they’re pretty rare. Google needs to standardize it. 

    • fvqu

      I agree with this 100%, I also hate buying a new device and losing all high-scores and progress.

  • Captain_Doug

    Just as long as we don’t complain about Google tracking us so they know which device we’re using…

  • I think you’re missing a key point here. It’s too hard for the devices to accurately know which one you are using. I keep myself logged into Chrome 24/7 on my home computer. I don’t turn the computer off, I don’t close chrome, and I don’t log out of chrome. So my notifications would ALL be going to my desktop. Also, I use my phone while also on the computer. Say someone sends me a text, now are all of my notifications going to my phone b/c I checked the text? And a toggle for device is just one more thing that I have to think about doing. I’m not going to get ANY notifications, b/c I will always forget to toggle it.

    I think the right way to do it is the way that I assume Apple is doing it. (I don’t know much about how their notification center works, but this is how I imagine it.) When I clear a notification on my phone, it should clear on my desktop, my phone, my tablet, etc. I know, this doesn’t take care of things like using different Twitter apps. But really, if you have 2 different Android devices are you going to be using different apps on each device? I’m probably not going to.

    Personally, this doesn’t affect me at all. I only have 1 Android device, and I don’t really get any notifications on my desktop. But my point is that both of the implementations that were mentioned here are flawed given different situations.

    tl;dr – there is no flawless way of doing what is suggested in the article.

    • There is no flawless way of doing most things with technology. Apple’s version doesn’t sync that you’ve cleared notifications, it just pushes them to all devices (same problem as Android). And yes, I definitely use different Twitter clients on my Android phone and tablet because of the limited tablet app selection. I think if Google added all sorts of customization options (if I get a text on my phone, push it to the desktop via GTalk or don’t switch my session for just a text or whatever) most would be happy. The point is, notifications are still bothersome despite our technology and I’d rather see innovation there than in glasses. 

  • jcorf

    Great article Ron! I’ve never really thought about this until now. I definitely agree that Google is going this way/should be going this way with Chrome and Android.

  • r0lct

    In order for those fancy glasses to work they must have tight device integration.  So I think this is something we’ll see addressed in JB.

  • Mike

    “Google could easily build on Apple’s idea, but, you know, make it work the way it should.” Gee, I wonder how that will turn out…

  • well i hate to say this but iphone groups notification by the apps…  for instance all mail goes together, all facebook goes together etc… and u can clear the individual groups.  i like this better.. i think android could probably perfect it though.

    • Josh Groff

      Doesn’t android do the same thing? Whenever i have X missed texts, it shows X missed texts, not individual notifications.

      • Masta Marc

         Point taken LOL  Android shows you the total number of missed calls etc.  iPhone shows you… who the call was from in the notification so you can return it from the notification pull down.  (Though i like the notification on Android A lot betteR)

  • I’d just be happy if I got RELIABLE text messaging, Yahoo push e-mails, and if the fetch actually worked on my MAXX.

  • Fattie McDoogles

    I only get them for emails and other google services not actual text messages.

  • teleclimber

    I agree this is a problem, but I don’t know if it’s practical to have the system detect which device one is expecting the notifications to arrive at. That’s too error-prone.

    What is really needed in my view is a solid general purpose cross-platform notification protocol that is device-independent and especially platform-independent, meaning that it could be implemented by Appkle and Google independently.

    Notifications would arrive on all devices (unless configured otherwise), and clearing them in one place would clear them everywhere. 

    Services like Facebook and Twitter would give you the option to receive these notifications via that protocol instead of email. 

    I imagine email clients like gmail or thunderbird would have a separate section called “notifications” next to the inbox that would recieve these notifications. Clear it there, it clears everywhere.

    There are lots of implementation details to think about but it would be worth it for someone (cough, Google) to do this.

  • Fattie McDoogles

    I agree… there has to be away to sync your text messages with GTalk or GVoice.

  • Fattie McDoogles

    I think its a good idea. I don’t know how it would actually function but its definitely a good idea in theory. I am sure there would be a way to link more things to you google account and then a toggle would probably be the best way to switch between the devices. Or if it could sync to the last device you unlocked/woke up.I agree [email protected]:disqus I can easily see many problems with syncing and not knowing which device you are using. But I don’t see it being something that isn’t easily and quickly fixed.

  • Issues that involve multiple devices is not a concern for most users.  I am a HUGE Android/Google fan, and even I have no use for an Android tablet.

    • But you use a computer, right? 

    • teleclimber

      There is also the issue of notifications arriving via email duplicating phone notifications. Also desktop popups for calendar events, chats, etc…

  • bakdroid

    Wow, stating the obvious yet again. Can you seriously ever write an article that actually makes some sort of factual points without regurgitating data that was written months ago on the same subject?  Apparently not.

    Oh, and as for your “For example, if your phone is also your tablet you couldn’t take a phone call very conveniently”, have you ever heard of Bluetooth??  How the hell else would you take a phone call?  Are you really going to hold your phone with one hand and the tablet with another?  Seriously, find another site to write for or gain some intelligence, though I believe the latter will be pretty tough for you.

    • ddevito


  • ModestMuse

    Google Talk is pretty good at this already. If I’m talking to someone with the desktop client, my phone will stop sending me notifications. Then, if I’m away from my computer for a while, and someone sends me a message, my phone will notify me.

    It tries it’s best to determine what I’m using, and just notifies me using that device. But when I pick up a different device, my whole conversation is right there and synced.

    • teleclimber

      I agree Gtalk has the closest thing to an ideal notification system.

  • S_T_R

    Actually…with the little notification addons for GMail/Voice on chrome, if I read an email on my phone, it clears the notification on Chrome within a few seconds. Same as when I read an email on Chrome, it will clear the notification on my phone. It’s not instant, but it does it.

    Which, basically, is how you have to do it. If I go to the next room to look at something and take my phone with me while leaving my PC on and browser open, it has no idea I left my seat. It has to be multiple notifications, but single clear.

  • Michael Forte

    Whatever happened to contact pictures in your notifications? I thought that was supposed to be a feature in ICS.

    • Michael Forte

      Here’s a picture of what I’m talking about.

      • Fattie McDoogles

        I only get them for emails and other google services not actual text messages.

    • ddevito

      ummm….it is…….? It’s one of the best subtle features in ICS.

      • Michael Forte

        Really? I’ve never seen a contact picture show up in my notifications when I get a message from them.

        • ddevito

          Just edit the contact and add a picture while editing.

          (Also, if you use Google Voice, you can set them there too – that’s how I do it. It’s easy since it can be done in a browser – much faster).

    • That’s a sample image from Google, not from my phone. 

    • it is I see it all the time

  • ddevito

    (If I were Google) I’d unify their overall communications before worrying about notifications – case in point 3rd party apps access and utilize OS notifications so it’s a moot point.

    I’d unify Google Talk, Google Plus Messenger, and Google Voice into one coherent stream of communication.

    (I’d add gmail to that list, and I think Google tried to change email with Wave, but we know how that ended).

    • I thought for sure they were going to unite Google Talk with G+, but I guess they decided to keep them separate in the end. Text messaging is going to go away sooner or later. If Google can integrate that at the OS level like iMessage it’d be fantastic. 

      • ddevito

        Couldn’t agree more, here’s to hoping!

        • Fattie McDoogles

          I agree… there has to be away to sync your text messages with GTalk or GVoice.

  • anonymous

    Very inciteful Ron, as always. I really enjoy hearing what you have to say and I hope to read more of your work on Droid Life.

    • ddevito

      umm….did you mean insightful? :p

      • Calculatorwatch

        Anything that even mentions iOS vs Android is definitely inciteful, haha

  • jdrch

    Technically, some notifications are already unified. For example, making an email as read in Gmail clears the corresponding notification on your Android phone.

    • Mentioned that in the fourth sentence… :p

      • jdrch

        Touche :). Actually I try to use email notifications instead of system notifications where possible for that reason, and also because email notifications can’t be rescinded or canceled so I have a “permanent” record of whatever the notification was for.

        • If we could make everything use ActiveSync I’d be a happy camper. 

  • Dont just stop at notification I think, device integration needs to happen for all devices on a far deeper level.

    But you can tell which device you are on, computer know when you sign in, my computer watches my phones bluetooth signal for when I leave. My phone knows when my computer is near as well. for that it is just getting them to play well together.

    • Agreed. It’s be great to see apps sync between devices better too (especially on new ones). 

  • Michael_NM

    Holy crap, I just got five different notifications on three devices about this article. 😀 Point taken. 🙂

  • T4rd

    I think it’s a non-issue.  If you want e-mail/IM notifications on your desktop, then just install the Gtalk client (or set up Outlook for e-mail) and you will (if you select that option in the settings).  It would be way to complicated to have your Google account recognize what platform you’re on at all times because it it inevitably mess up and send notifications to the wrong location.  So you might as well get them everywhere so you’ll definitely get them.

  • Droidzilla

    Most of my notifications are Google services based, so I really don’t have this issue. If I read a GMail on my Mac using Chrome and delete it, I won’t get the notification on my RAZR. Ditto GTalk and GVoice.

    That said, I don’t think Apple is on the right track. They’re just using Android’s notification system and tweaking it a bit. Putting the Notification Center on all Apple devices is akin to me using all Google services, which works great, right now. I think Apple is, yet again, following Google on this one and not the other way around.

    • mordyF

      I disagree. Your notifications only don’t show up once you read it but if they came already to your phone or whatever you are using its too late you have to dismiss it.

      • Droidzilla

        Not how mine works. Which device/OS version are you using?

        • mordyF

          ICS galaxy nexus 4.0.2 you?

          • Droidzilla

            Droid RAZR stock (173 firmware; waiting on soak update). Weird that it doesn’t work that way for you.

          • mordyF

            Maybe I am getting mixed up with what you are talking about. I am referring to the notifications on the top of the phone in the notification bar. Not in the actual app.

          • Droidzilla

            Same. If I get a GMail notification but I read it on my browser, it will auto clear on my phone. If I get a Google Talk notification, and I reply via the browser, it’ll clear on my phone. Sadly doesn’t work for calendar updates; those still have separate notifications.

          • feztheforeigner

            My GNEX works exactly as he described.

  • Hans Kwazneski


    I don’t mind having the 100 notifications since I can clear them in one simple click. Appreciate the ideas, but this is really the last thing I’d fix on Android.

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