Taking Action on Notifications

One of the first iOS 8 features I wrote about last summer was actionable notifications.  Basically, this feature allows notifications to have buttons that let you respond to them without even opening the app.  When I first saw this feature, it was in the context of banner notifications on the top of the screen.  I thought this was definitely a cool idea, but not quite an earth-shattering one.  However, once I realized that these actions are also available on the lock screen, I realized how much time this feature would actually save me.

Let’s go through a hypothetical situation here.  Let’s say I’m sitting in class and my phone is buzzing off the hook.  I’m not going to look at it in class, so when it ends, I have a bunch of notifications.  Let’s say I’ve got a text from my brother, asking me a question about church tonight.  I’ve also got 16 texts from a group message, a notification from WordPress that someone linked to my post, two emails about my scout troop, a Twitter mention, two Instagram likes, and a Snapchat.  (Of course, I rarely open my phone and see notifications from all of these apps at once, but for the sake of this example, I’ve named lots of apps which have notifications I can act upon.)  Let’s go through each of these one at a time:

First is the text from my brother.  Since Messages is an official Apple app, it can have much more functionality than Apple would allow a third-party app.  Because of this, I can swipe right on this notification and tap reply.  A keyboard then pops up right on the lock screen, allowing me to respond to the text (rest assured, random people who find your phone can reply to your texts only if you’ve turned this feature on).  The only thing that’s annoying about this is that iOS won’t let me use SwiftKey on the lock screen, because that keyboard requires full access, and I guess they don’t want it to run unless I’ve put my passcode in.

Next are the group texts.  If it’s not something I want to reply to, I can just read them all right there on the lock screen, and then swipe right and dismiss the most recent one.  Now the cool part happens: I don’t have to dismiss every text.  If I dismiss one text from a thread, all texts that came in before that also clear.  The assumption is that if you’ve read the most recent, you’ve read them all.  This is great, because sometimes I open my phone to 50 or more group texts.

After dealing with all the messages, I’ve got a WordPress notification.  Since most of my pingback notifications are from my own blog (which is a whole different can of worms I can gripe about), I just want to approve them right away.  Fortunately, I can swipe on the notification and tap “Approve.”  The only annoying part is that this doesn’t mark the notification as viewed in the WordPress app; messages, in contrast, are all marked as read when you dismiss the notification.

Now come the emails.  I was a Boy Scout for seven years, but I aged out last fall.  I’m technically an Assistant Scoutmaster, but I don’t really do anything in that post.  That being said, most of the troop emails don’t apply to me.  With actionable notifications, I can swipe on each notification and tap “Mark as read.”  And they’re gone.  This is also nice because, while my read states do sync between devices, this process can take a while.  So if I read an email on my iPad, then see it on my phone, I can easily mark it as read.

Now on to social media.  More than likely I want to favorite that Twitter mention, and I can do so right from the lock screen.  As for the Instagram likes, I can just dismiss them.  Like WordPress, these don’t mark as viewed in the Instagram app, but I can just clear them next time I’m there.

Now all I’m left with is the Snapchat.  The difference here is that you can’t do anything to Snapchat notifications on the lock screen (besides clear them), so I have to unlock my phone for this.  Since Snapchat focuses on pictures, there’s not much they can do with actionable notifications.  However, I’ve just gone from 24 notifications to 1, without even unlocking my phone.  That’s a major boost in efficiency, and even better, one that I can use every day.  ••

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A Brief History of iMessage

Six months ago I didn’t have iMessage.  Sure, I had it on my iPod Touch, but I only ever used it a couple times to send photos.  Most of the time, I was using regular SMS texting on my old phone.  But then that changed when I got an iPhone last January.  Suddenly, I was exposed to the world of iMessage.  What is iMessage?  Basically, it’s Apple’s replacement for SMS.  It only works from one Apple device to another, but when it does work, it’s dramatically better.  Even more genius, Apple has managed to make sure that just about every iPhone owner uses iMessage.  So how did iMessage evolve in just four short years?  Let’s look at its history.

2011, iOS 5
iMessage was first announced at WWDC 2011, and right from the start it contained all the core features it needed to be a success.  The most important part of iMessage, in my opinion, is the way it handles picture messages.  SMS takes forever to send a picture, and then it’s a scaled down version.  iMessage sends pictures way faster, and at full resolution.  It even includes all the original metadata (date, location, etc.).  This is great.  Even regular texts send faster over iMessage.  It’s able to do this because it works over the internet (WiFi and 4G) instead of on regular phone service.  Because of this, it just works better than SMS.  Even at this early stage, iMessage also included the ability to send locations and contacts, as well as read receipts (the option to tell someone that you’ve seen their message).  So from the start, Apple created iMessage to be good.  But then they went in for the kill.  Using iMessage would be completely automatic and take place in the same app as SMS.  This meant that users would have to do essentially nothing to start using this service.  After that, their iPhone would automatically determine whether or not the recipient of a text had iMessage.  If they did, it would send an iMessage (colored blue).  If not, it would send a regular SMS (colored green).  There was nothing the user had to do.  This was genius.  Any other messaging app would have to force people to download it, then remember which app to use for each person they text.  But Apple got around that.

2012, iOS 6
The most important iMessage feature to come to iOS 6 focused on the iPad.  From the start, your iPhone could send iMessages from either your phone number or the email address for your Apple ID.  However, your iPad could only use the email address (“because it’s not a phone,” was the original argument I guess).  However, that all changed with iOS 6.  Now, you could receive iMessages sent to your phone number on any device.  This, like the bundling of iMessage into the existing Text app, reduced the friction and effort required of users to almost zero.  Good move, Apple.

2013, iOS 7
iOS 7 didn’t bring many feature updates to iMessage, it mostly focused on the look at feel of the Messages app.  There were, however, a few new features to make it easier to view sent images or the contact information of the person you’re talking to.  However, like much of iOS 7, the Messages app mostly just got a visual facelift.

2014, iOS 8
iOS 8, on the other hand, added lots of new features to iMessage.  Most of them focused on group messaging.  iMessage has always supported group messaging, but it hadn’t gotten much special attention until now.  iOS 8 allows you to rename, mute, or leave group messages, to make sure you don’t get stuck receiving dozens of notifications from a group you don’t care about.  This is really helpful.  As someone who spends a lot of time in group messages, these improvement are all more than welcome.  iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite also gave the Messages app new abilities regarding, ironically, SMS text messages.  With these updates, you can now send SMS messages from your iPad and Mac, as long as your iPhone is on.  This can be a little buggy, but it is nice whenever I have to text a green bubble friend from my computer.

2015, iOS 9
According to Apple’s iOS 9 Preview page, there aren’t any earth shattering new features coming to iMessage this fall.  However, there could be plenty that we don’t know about yet.  Perhaps the coolest thing we know about as of now involves improvements to Siri.  In iOS 9, if you’re looking at an email, webpage, or iMessage, you can say, “Hey Siri, remind me about this when I get home.”  Siri will then create a reminder for what you’re seeing on screen.  The entire reminder is essentially a link; clicking on it takes you back to what you were looking at before.  Definitely useful!

So as you can see, iMessage is actually pretty complicated (especially for something that’s so simple to use).  The smartest thing Apple did with iMessage, though, isn’t in the list above.  Apple made iMessage exclusionary.  Now that I’m used to iMessage, regular SMS feels archaic and obnoxious.  I have no idea if my Android friends got my messages, I can’t send them photos easily, and you can just forget about sending videos.  I’ve heard more than one person I know say that they don’t want to switch to Android because they’ll miss out on iMessage.  That’s the kind of feature that Apple does best: one that’s so good that you’d never leave their ecosystem because of it.  ••

Snapcash: Not Sure I Understand

Last week, the smash hit photo messaging app Snapchat unveiled a new feature: Snapcash.  Snapchat has partnered with Square to add money sending features to Snapchat.  To use this feature, you must be 18 years old, and you must link your debit card to your Snapchat account.  If you’re already scratching your head, I don’t blame you; I was also confused when I first saw this.  In my opinion, there’s two main problems with this feature.

The first problem is Snapchat’s implementation.  I haven’t actually used Snapcash, but from what Snapchat said, it seems all you have to do to send money is type a dollar sign and then an amount, such as “$20,” in a message.  This must be done from the text-only messaging screen, photo captions don’t count.  To me, this seems to make it too easy to send money.  Imagine you’re talking to a friend, and you casually say something like, “Today I was at the store going to buy such and such, but it was $100, so I decided not to.”  As far as I can tell, you’ve just sent that person $100.  I think the send button changes color to indicate that you’re about to send money, but in my opinion there should be at least one other confirmation prompt.  What this actually reminds me of is Amazon.com’s one-click ordering.  It’s convenient, but you have to be very, very, careful.

The other problem I have with Snapcash is a more basic one: it just doesn’t make sense.  Messaging is great, and so is sending money, but I don’t see any overlap here.  I’ve never thought to myself, “You know, it’d be really great if I could send money over Snapchat!”  I commend Snapchat for trying to add features to their service, but I think they may be looking in the wrong place.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong.  Who knows?  This could be good after all.  For now, though, I’m just not sure I get it.  ••

July App Review: The New Skype for iPhone

App: Skype (v. 5.1)
Developer: Microsoft
Price: Free
Platform: iOS (iPhone only, iPad coming soon)

There’s been a Skype iPhone app for a long time now.  However, over the years, it hasn’t changed much.  Sure, it got a slight iOS 7 facelift, and a few new features here and there, but honestly there hasn’t been much going on for about two years now.  All that changed a few weeks ago.  Microsoft has completely redesigned their messenger app for the iPhone (a redesigned iPad version is coming soon).  Microsoft has acknowledged that there are lots of messenger apps out there, and that they want to be competitive.  Skype for iPhone has gotten a huge cosmetic redo, as well as some cool new features.

Let’s start with the look and feel.  Before, the Skype app didn’t really feel special.  It didn’t feel too dated, but it wasn’t super neat either.  All that has changed.  Microsoft has given it a modern makeover, and in my opinion they scored a home run.  The app has the flat look that seems to be trendy right now, but it doesn’t exactly look like iOS 7 either.  Instead, the bolder colors just scream Microsoft, and I mean that in only the best way.  Through Windows 8 (and other recent products), Microsoft has crafted a new look, and props to them for successfully branding their software.  There are also a lot of nice new animations in the app.  When you tap on a conversation, for example, the new screen slides in quickly, then sort of “bounces” off the edge, then finally stops in place.  It’s a cool feel, and you can tell someone at Microsoft put plenty of thought into little details like this.

But the new Skype isn’t all about looks either.  There are lots of other new features.  For as long as I’ve used Skype, it has supported both one-on-one and group messaging.  iMessage also supports group threads, but most of my friends hate them.  Why?  Once you’re in a group, you’re stuck.  Then, as other people have a conversation (which may or may not be relevant to you at all), you keep getting notifications for every single message.  Skype not only allows you to leave a group (this feature has been there for awhile), but now you can also turn off notifications for specific groups or even specific contacts.  (To be fair, iOS 8 will allow you to leave or mute group messaging, so Apple is fixing their problem.)  The other new feature of Skype that I was really excited about is offline photo sharing.  In older versions of Skype, whenever you sent a file, both you and your recipient had to be online in order for the transfer to complete.  With the new app, this isn’t the case anymore – as long as both people are using the app.  App to app photo transfers are seamless.  However, when you send a photo from the app to someone on a computer, they get a link.  When they click on the link, they can see the photo.  Technically, this is “offline sharing,” but it’s hardly seamless.  I was hoping that there wouldn’t be any difference on the receiving end.  Unfortunately, it seems this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Unbelievably, when someone on a computer sends a photo to the app, you can’t get the photo at all.  Instead you get a message saying that this version of Skype doesn’t support file transfers yet.  I’m sure this will get fixed, but meanwhile Microsoft could make a lot of people upset by removing a feature that they’ve had for two years.

Call quality on the new Skype is still pretty good (although Skype call quality can be hit or miss sometimes).  Overall, I like the direction Microsoft is going.  There are certainly some oversights, but if Microsoft is paying as much attention to its user base as it claims to be, hopefully these will get fixed soon.  As someone who uses Skype on the computer every day, it’s nice to have a fresh version for my mobile devices.  I just hope Microsoft is able to learn from this first version and make later ones even better.  ••

Update 10/12/14: Microsoft has updated both Skype for Windows desktop and Skype for Mac to include the new photo sharing features.  Oddly enough, Skype for Mac can both send and receive photos the new way, but Skype for Windows only receives them (still sending photos the old way).  Skype for iPad has not been updated yet.