These days, I’m better off glancing at my phone to get a sense of what’s happening online than firing up my laptop. That’s great when I’m away from the big screen, but it reveals a notable difference between how desktop and mobile operating systems approach the display of real time information and updates. Even iOS 4′s much-maligned pop-up notifications offer a usable, unified, and customizable system for alerts and notes; I usually keep my phone near my laptop for this very reason.

Most of my day is spent in front of a computer, where I’ve been using Growl for years to monitor work, news, and personal data. As handy as it is, though, desktop notifications simply haven’t kept up with the flood of data we’re dealing with daily. Yes I can keep several apps running in multiple virtual or real desktops, but I still spend far too much time digging through email, loading up tabs, clicking through menus, and twiddling with filters to keep up with essential data.

Note Michael Lopp’s ‘The Anatomy of a Notification‘ a few days before the iOS 5 announcement earlier this year:

We need a notification system that accounts for the fact we’re constantly signing up for new information, but don’t have the time or the tools to pay attention to it. We need a tool that allows us to adjust the level of detail of the data we receive to align with the level of attention we have to give it.

What’s on today’s schedule? Am I missing messages from apps and services? Have meetings been canceled? Thunderstorm brewing? At best, most of this gets filtered through a dismal web of email rules, filters, and labels, which beginners often avoid and pros begrudgingly maintain. Dock and menu bar icon badges suggest something important may have happened, but they don’t differentiate between an important family message and yet another half-priced fajita party. Even if you don’t want realtime Tiny Tower updates pinging your desktop, a unified notification system could consolidate the hugely inefficient process of managing the apps, sites, and widgets that make up your digital life. OS X’s Dashboard is an afterthought these days. Windows users aren’t much better off; a tangle of browser extensions help, but Windows’ notification area hasn’t improved much since XP. Windows 8′s Metro UI makes some strides with desktop and lockscreen alerts and letting you scan app activity at a glance, but it’s still got a long way to go.

Google, Facebook and many other sites have been popularizing their own in-network alerts (e.g. Gmail pop-ups, TweetDeck alerts), but they’re dependent on keeping your browser running. The modular, web-based Boxcar might be on the right track with its multi-device compatibility, but it feels like a stopgap to rethinking desktop notifications entirely.

Here’s what I’m proposing:

  • A unified notification system with hooks for both local system notifications and apps and web developers (Apple is already centralizing services in the Mail, Contacts, & Calendars pane, so why shouldn’t users be able to hook up their Facebook and Twitter accounts?).
  • Browsable, searchable history in a pull-down tab or overlay, sortable by app and service
  • Alerts sorted by type or app and the ability to collapse and hide incoming notifications
  • Controls for tweaking alerts and notifications by app, service, and priority (e.g. a user should be able to prioritize bank alerts and downgrade Facebook comment threads.)
  • Unobtrusive overlays for incoming notes similar to Growl-style pop-ups or Android’s status bar
  • Preferably, alerts and notifications would be integrated at the system level. As evidenced by millions of users’ familiarity with notifications on Android, iOS, Windows Phone and other devices, Microsoft and Apple may have to take the lead.

The hardware, software, and size constraints inherent to a mobile UI have resulted in some truly innovative ways to manage a flood of information, and with app and service usage showing no sign of slowing, it’s high time we got serious about desktop notifications. Until then, my phone will remain parked on my desk doing the work of two machines.