LAS VEGAS -- I want to noodle a bit about the Start Experience in Windows Phone 7 series, but before that happens I need to get something off my chest as a way of opening the conversation: I have an unhealthy obsession with notifications in Windows Phone 7 Series. There are two reasons for this.
The first and most important reason is that Microsoft is following Apple's cue by suggesting push notifications can replace functionality normally handled by third-party multitasking. If you remove the ability to multitask, you better make damn sure that your push notification replacement system works well.
The second is that we already have two mobile operating systems that do an excellent job handling notifications -- Android and webOS. Both allow notifications to appear without interrupting you, both let notifications "stack," and both offer a unified place to view and manage your notifications. Knowing that there are two systems out there for handling notifications well makes me want to see a similarly elegant system from Microsoft. Despite what I wrote in a recent tweet, WP7S does have a way to manage (some) notifications -- but it's going to require a shift in how users think about their messages.
Read on for more on notifications and how they relate to Start.
Four kinds of alerts
By my count, there are 4 kinds of alerts in 7 Series. Let's go through them one by one.
Toast alerts pop down from the top of the screen like toast out of a toaster. They are short messages that let you know you've received a push notification for any app. Compared to the iPhone, Toast alerts are better because they're non-interruptive. When you receive a toast alert, it doesn't prevent you from interacting with the app you're currently using.
Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends. Toast alerts appear for a short amount of time (measured in seconds) and then they go away. Completely. If you missed the alert or forgot it, the onus is on your frazzled mind to try to remember what that toast alert said and what app it pertained to.
Toast alerts also do not stack -- they appear one by one in serial fashion as they appear. So when you get off the plane and turn your radio back on (or when you unlock the phone after a long time in standby), you best pay close attention to the top of your screen to see what all the alerts are -- or trust that you have all your important apps promoted to the Start screen.
If there is an alert that I care about but for some reason I don't have that app promoted to a live tile that's always front and center, I'm out of luck when it comes to having a persistent or manageable notification for that app. I like using my alert area on Android and webOS to line up what I need to do next. Even the iPhone allows apps to "badge" their icons when they have unread notifications -- allowing apps to at least put a badge or an asterisk on the right-hand-side app list would go a long ways towards allaying my concerns.
Pop-up alerts are a new kind of alert Microsoft just revealed Wednesday at MIX10. We don't know much about them since they're not built into the build of 7 Series we're seeing here, but it sounds like they're modal alerts that obscure and pause the app you're currently using. These alerts are probably not going to be offered to third-party developers; instead they'll be reserved for system alerts (like low battery) and reminders. You'll need to act on them or dismiss them to get back to your app.
The next kind of alert are in-app alerts. If your app is open and it receives a push notification, they developer can opt to have the app itself respond to the alert. For example: If you have a new e-mail, it would simply fade in to the screen in an elegant way as you're looking at it.
Many hubs and/or apps also will have a "What's New" panel where these sorts of alerts will appear.
I've saved the best for last. A developer can code the Start tile for their app to show a very small amount of information -- like new photos from a Flickr stream with the most recent photo visible behind the number.
How I (might) stop worrying and learn to love the Start Experience
You'll see that what's lacking from the above description is an integrated way to deal with all incoming alerts -- as I said you'll need to go app-by-app to hunt down all the new stuff that's getting pushed to your phone.
The solution is to make sure that all the apps whose alerts you care about are in your Start screen as tiles. That will give you an integrated way to see notifications. In that sense, I do need to give Microsoft proper credit for staying consistent to its vision of a different kind of phone experience and to the primacy of the Start experience. If you are willing/able to get all the apps that push updates into your Start screen as tiles, it's perhaps a more elegant way to handle notifications than what's available on Android or webOS.
However, I'm not sure I'm willing to go all-in with this Start experience. I don't know yet (obviously), but I wonder if there will be cases where I'll want an app to be able to receive push notifications but won't want to give up precious Start real estate for a tile. I imagine if it's important, it'll get a tile. But that same space is also acting as a shortcut menu, a home screen with glance-able information in widgets, a speed dial screen, and more.
Like so many other things with 7 Series, I won't know until I live with it for a few weeks whether Start truly can replace what I feel I need from a dedicated notification area. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that most people are underestimating just how much functionality and joy that Microsoft is packing into Start.
Right now I often think of my phone as a triage nurse handing incoming patients (messages) at the emergency room. Start on WP7s might let me think of it as the family refrigerator, covered in random sticky notes from people I care about, the family calendar, and notes I've written to myself about stuff I need to do that day. Microsoft is trying to rethink what a phone is and perhaps in the process make it less stressful -- their users will have to make as big a cognitive shift in what they expect from a phone as Microsoft did when they created it.
If I can learn to stop worrying and love the Start Experience, I suspect it's possible I'll fall in love.