Notifications are some of the most fragile but important elements of our digital lives today. Some apps use them as a one-bit communication medium, while others use them to ping you with each and every comment on your latest photo. But there's one thing every notification does, which is make your phone beep, vibrate, or at the very least light up. With an Apple Watch, your wrist is now the thing vibrating. But a watch isn't as easy to ignore as the phone in your pocket. Without some smart software and user education, the Apple Watch could be Apple's most annoying gadget ever.
Having easy access to notifications is one of the most desirable features of a smartwatch, but today's generation of devices haven't done a great job helping you configure which notifications you want on your phone, and which ones you want on your wrist. Pebble shows every single notification that hits your iPhone, which isn't optimal, and Android Wear goes a step further, letting you prevent specific apps from reaching your wrist, but these watches need to do more. They need to understand that a retweet isn't worth buzzing your wrist about, but a DM from your good friend is.
Apple hasn't yet revealed many details about how notifications will work on the Apple Watch, but said that the default behavior would be that all iPhone notifications would be immediately reflected on your wrist. "Initially, notifications will just show up," said Apple vice president Kevin Lynch. Then, he showed a slide where a Facebook friend request popped up onto an Apple Watch. Uh oh. In what world is a Facebook friend request worth disrupting your dinner? Despite the Apple Watch's "subtle," "Taptic" vibration engine, a notification is always a distraction. If "all notifications on" is indeed the default come launch day, Apple needs to have invented a much simpler way to turn off notifications on a per-app basis than digging through Notification Center, which many of my friends still don't know how to do. Otherwise, people are going to see their smartwatches as terrible notification machines that truly make you available to your boss and to Twitter trolls 24 hours a day.
You should be able to mark specific people in any app as VIPs
Apple itself has in fact already done some good work towards defining more granular settings for notifications in iOS, which can be configured so only "VIP" emails can reach you, and so only Favorite callers can ring you during nighttime hours. You should be able to mark specific people in any app as VIPs, so when you receive a game invite from your Dad, you'll receive a notification — but not when you receive one from a random person. You should also be able to mark specific types of notifications within each app as "for my phone" or "for my wrist." Apple should provide developers with ways to designate which kinds of notifications it intends to send to your wrist, and then let users turn each notification on or off.
Yet, developers haven't always proven trustworthy when left to their own devices. While it's against App Store guidelines, I still receive promotional push notifications all the time from certain apps touting coupon codes or new products. These kinds of notifications are easy to dismiss on my phone, but even just a few of these "New rupees available!" notifications on an Apple Watch might leave some users wanting to unstrap their Watch's magnetic clasp and leave it on a bed table. Apple has often exercised arguably too much control over its App Stores and operating systems for the sake of consistency and quality. But sometimes, control is a very good thing.
Apple, please don't screw up notifications on the Apple Watch. What I really mean is — Apple, please don't let us screw up notifications on the Apple Watch. By providing frameworks for developers to better define notifications, and by making simpler settings for users to control them, the Apple Watch (and other smartwatches) might transcend the annoyances they have become.