I’ve previously written about how I recently switched from using an iPhone to using an Android model. The reasons mostly had to do with my perception that the Android ecosystem was more open and diverse than Apple’s. (Many readers took issue, as their comments show.) I hadn’t expected an additional benefit to using an Android. It didn’t dawn on me until I had been using one for awhile: The new phone has been helping me disconnect some from the maelstrom of real-time notifications, and that’s a good thing.
One of the things that made my iPhone into an extension of my arm for the three years I used one was the ability to see at a glance anything that required my attention—e-mail, Twitter, Instagram, Path, or one of a dozen other social networks and services I have signed up for. At first I thought this was a great feature, but I’ve changed my mind.
Not only did certain apps (such as Twitter) wake up the iPhone screen, even when the device was sleeping, to flash a message, but every icon for every app also had mini-notifications built in, so that I could see at a glance how many emails had come in since the last time I had checked, or how many Facebook messages, and so forth. Each icon had a little number next to it that wouldn’t go away until I opened the app and dealt with the messages or updates. (There are also banner updates that can be individually configured for different apps.)
If you need to stay on top of things such as e-mail, this is a really great feature. If you are somewhat obsessive, or have something approaching attention-deficit disorder, however, it’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole that you play with your phone: Open the app and click through the e-mails so that the number next to the icon goes away; five minutes later, 100 news ones are waiting. Twitter is the same. So is Facebook.
(Note: I know you can turn these off on the iPhone, as some commenters pointed out. I am just describing my experience via the default settings, not making a blanket statement about the value of the iPhone as a whole).
To me, those numbers became a nagging indicator of my failure to stay on top of everything I was supposed to be paying attention to. When I switched to Android, I saw that there weren’t any notification bubbles next to the icons, and nothing woke up my phone. There was a small LED at the top of the phone —a Motorola Razr HD— that changed color, based on certain input, but that was it. When I woke the phone up, some small icons at the top would indicate new e-mails and such. All very easy to ignore.
Many iPhone fans are probably going to see what I’m describing as a negative rather than a positive. After all, I’m talking about how the Android lacks certain features the iPhone offers—how could that be seen as a good thing? And that’s what I wondered when I started using the Android.
In fact, I spent a fair bit of time looking for ways to reproduce the kind of notification experience I got with the iPhone. I tweaked the settings—which don’t give you the granularity you get with the iPhone. (At least not in my experience.) I even downloaded a bunch of apps designed to replicate the iPhone notifications, right down to the noises they made, which were programmed into my subconscious.
Nothing I tried seemed to reproduce the kind of notifications I got on the iPhone, however—at least not in a way that seemed to fit my needs. So I basically stopped trying. Now the light on my phone blinks from time to time, but it’s really easy to ignore. It chirps sometimes, but there’s no flashing on-screen message to tell me what it is. I have different rings for texts and phone calls from important people. That’s about it.
When I open up my Android phone from sleep mode, there are no tiny numbers beside any of the icons. A widget shows the first few subject lines of e-mails so I can see if something is very important. A second widget offers a small calendar view. When I want to see notifications from all the various apps and services, I can swipe down on the screen (a feature Apple borrowed from Android, I believe) and see a list.
Not having better notifications may be a downside for some, but I guess for me it has been a blessing in disguise. I had been trying to be more disciplined about my real-time updates, the way others such as Om have described, turning off all the notifications, one by one. But I am weak. Maybe it took a switch to a different platform and an unfamiliar user interface for me to make the decisions I should have made earlier to make my life a little less hectic.
Believe me, I’m not trying to say that the Android phone is better than the iPhone in every circumstance or for every person—or that Google is better than Apple. I’m just trying to describe my usage of both—and how I came to the conclusion that for me, fewer notifications (or more subtle ones) is actually a good thing.
Also from GigaOM:
How New Devices, Networks, and Consumer Habits Will Change the Web Experience (subscription required