Messaging in the Notification Era

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The first Apple Watch units have hit the streets and we’re beginning to get a good sense of how people are finding the watch fits into their lives. A common theme has been that some of the greatest value is that the watch makes it easy to see information that is of high value and importance. As I predicted weeks ago, notifications are as valuable to Apple Watch as apps are to iPhone, but only if they are truly notifications important enough to interrupt us on the wrist. Ben Bajarin put it this way in his excellent Apple Watch review:

Since we engage with the Apple Watch for only a matter of seconds, we need to know the information delivered is extremely valuable. Therefore, the notifications I allow to come to my wrist are ones I have ranked as the highest priority…With the Apple Watch app, you can filter the notifications you want to allow to get your attention. This is the most compelling aspect of the Watch experience.

Apple Watch is bringing to attention to the fact that our world is changing to one in which notifications play a larger role than ever before.1 Unfortunately, one part of the iOS experience is not ready for this new day: Messaging.

The Problem of Messaging Explosion

As social media and messaging apps have cross-pollinated, enabled by the built-in social graph that is your phone’s address book, social media & messaging has fragmented. On my phone, I have 17 separate social media/messaging apps2 and while I may be somewhat unusual, everyone’s phone comes with a minimum of four social media/messaging apps: SMS/iMessage, FaceTime, Phone, Mail. Add in Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, and you’re already up to seven–and this is ignoring a massive number of other social media/messaging apps, several of which I bet are on your phone right now.3 This fragmentation creates two problematic situations.

Receiving Messages

The first problem is that notifications on Apple Watch lack the granularity needed in this era of messaging clients. Apple Watch notifications at present, are app-based, meaning that I can either choose to receive all notifications from a 3rd-party app, or none. Within some apps, there is more granularity (e.g. Twitter allows you to turn of @-reply notifications), but these aren’t contact-specifics. I can turn off all DMs, but not DMs from everyone but a sponsor. I can’t get a notification when my wife posts to Instagram and not anyone else.

Notifications on Apple Watch have their greatest value when each one truly is important, but not all notifications from an app are equally valuable. By mixing what is truly valuable (a message from my wife) with what is not (questions from my students), the entire value of notifications are diluted. Diluting the value of notifications, in turn, dilutes the value proposition of the entire Apple Watch.

Sending Messages

The second problem is that contacting people requires using all these messaging channels and remember who I can contact in what way. If I want to share a picture of my son to my family, I have to email it to one set of grandparents, text it to another, post it on Instagram and Facebook, iMessage it to my Mom, post it on my WeChat feed, and put it in multiple WeChat groups–and I have to remember all of that for my family!4 If I want to contact one class of my students, I have to use 8 different messaging channels: SMS, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Skype, Instagram, WeChat, plus emailing parents to be safe–and I have to remember who I can contact in what way.5

Of course, on Apple Watch I won’t initiate a group text, and if I only responded to notifications, I’d probably be ok. But if I ever initiate a quick message to a friend, it’s a problem. I can’t directly use Siri to send a message via a 3rd party client, so I have turn on my watch, remember what client I should use to contact my friend, go to the app screen, find the app, open it, select the contact, and then send the message.

Solving Messaging for the Notification Era

Some have tried to solve this problem by creating yet another client, only this client is One Client To Rule Them All. Unfortunately, yet another 3rd party app will never work, as each service, especially those monetizing through ads, wants to own the experience, serve ads, and get user data, so they will not give up their users to another client, especially one that equalizes the playing field with all other messaging services. These meta-clients, then, will integrate some messaging clients, but not all, thereby adding yet another app that further fragments the messaging scene.

The answer to the problem of sending and receiving messages from contacts is solved be adjusting the address book for this notification age. Rene Ritchie at iMore had a great idea, essentially duplicating the email VIP system for Contacts. This would go a long way to solving the issue of getting notifications for every iMessage and not just VIP iMessages, but it wouldn’t ultimately solve the problem since it still treats contacts in an all-or-nothing way and wouldn’t integrate 3rd party messaging services.6

Ritchie’s solution would be tremendous, but it doesn’t do enough to solve all the problems. To get messaging ready for this notification era, Apple needs to enable two things: a read/write Contacts API and a Contact Notification Center.

Contacts API

The Contacts API needs to allow 3rd party services not just to read one’s contact book but to add a social profile to it.7 At present, the only services that can do this are those specifically integrated by Apple (see above list), and this is done through the system settings, not through the specific apps. But if 3rd party apps could add their social profile into Contacts, then you could send a message from Apple Watch to anyone using just Siri and Apple wouldn’t even need to open a Siri API to developers.8 At present, when I tell Siri to call someone and there are multiple phones, Siri asks which number. In what I’m envisioning, when you tell Siri to send a message and there are multiple ways, Siri would just ask you which method you want to use–or Apple could even let you indicate the preferred method of communication to use. You would no longer need to remember how to contact each person, nor would you need to go through a multi-step process to contact someone on Apple Watch.

Contact Notification Center

The idea of a Contact Notification Center is a place where you can set Contact-specific notification preferences, rather than app-specific preferences. Similar to Mail VIPs like Ritchie recommended, this would allow you to get notifications when specific people contacted you. But, further than mere Contact VIPs, a Contact Notification Center would allow you to make granular choices for notifications per contact, per-messaging service, even per-device.9 I could choose to get notifications when my Mom texts me or calls me, but not when she emails me; I could be notified when my brother posts to Instagram, but not when he tweets; I could get a notification when my boss messages me, but not when he emails me.


With the explosion of messaging clients and social media–enabled by iPhone’s contact book–Apple has created a messaging problem that isn’t solve by Apple Watch alone. To ensure Apple Watch notifications have highest value, what is needed is a contact-centric, not app-centric notification center that allows for the integration of 3rd party messaging services. The future is one in which notifications take an increasingly significant role, and Apple must be ready for it. With the introduction of a Contacts API and Contact Notification Center, Apple would be.

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Related posts on Apple Watch by @MarkDMill:


1. Some great pieces on this subject are these: Steve Levy, the Age of Notifications; TechCrunch, Notifications are the Next Platform; Tim Bajarin, Notifications are Becoming a Platform.↩️

2. They are, in no particular order: Wechat, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, LinkedIn, FaceTime, FaceBook Messenger, Skype, Periscope, Mail, Phone, Messages, Twitter (3 separate clients).↩️

3. This fragmentation is even greater when you realize that each app channel of communication contain sub-channels of communication: Most people receive & send from multiple email addresses in Mail; Instagram & Twitter have a stream, @-replies, and DMs; Facebook has a stream, wall posts, & direct messaging via Messenger app; WeChat has a direct messages, group messages, a stream, & @-replies.↩️

14. This is yet another reason I’m so thankful for the amazing app Workflow. I’ve written a workflow that does all of this automatically, which was featured on episode 243 of Mac Power Users. You can download the Workflow app here–worth every single penny, if only for this feature–and download the “Send pic everywhere” workflow here.↩️

5. I, thankfully, don’t have to remember who to SMS v. iMessage, as iOS is smart enough to determine that and automatically adjust. In that sense, I suppose I only have to open 6 apps even though it goes through 7 messaging channels. ↩️

6. Ritchie notes “Since Contacts includes social profiles, it could possibly even apply to Twitter DMs or Facebook Messages,” but this would be limited to only those services integrated in iOS: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Vimeo, Sina Weibo, & Tencent Weibo. Absent are may important social media/messaging clients, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or WeChat–arguably the most important for Apple, given China’s importance to Apple.↩️

7. Unlike One Client to Rule Them All, an API would get the support of clients since it’s an enabling platform and not a competing app.↩️

8. Which, arguably, Apple needs to do anyway, but has been reluctant to do so in the past.↩️

9. The danger of this system would be its complexity; however, I don’t think it would be inherently more complex for the user than the current Notification Center. The right default opt-ins would need to be determined, allowing for ease of setup but also more adjustment for “power users.”↩️

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