March 20, 2015

Push, The Web, and The Watch

Push notifications are a really big deal. They add tremendous utility to connected devices, especially for mobile ones.

Push notifications are powerful in two different ways: They provide alerts to the user, obviously, but they can also provide alerts to applications. For example, a server can send a push notification to an app, signaling there is new content to be downloaded. The app can then silently pre-load that content and decide when best to alert the user about the new data, if at all. This way the user always sees the freshest data – no “downloading…” required.

Apple’s push technology is closed and proprietary. It relies on native-API-only app tokens, an Apple-controller server, and an OS-level connection to that server to keep battery drain to a minimum.

So far no technology like this exists for the web. It’s a huge weak spot for web apps. If you want to build an app capable of alerting the user to something through an experience you control, you need push notifications, so you need a native app.1

The Apple Watch looks to be all about notifications. It has a touch screen and a dial, but it doesn’t seem designed for lots of input. It has good little screen, but it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to stare at for a long time. Without having used one, it’s difficult to know for sure, but the primary usage pattern seems to be:

  1. Notification: Be notified something happened, through any of the apps you have installed.
  2. Action: Perform some quick action. Reply to a text, get route information, or view a photo.
  3. Dismissal: Dismiss the device and get on with your life.

Web apps can’t even get off the ground with this kind of alert-driven usage pattern. It should be no wonder to anyone why they’re not part of wearable devices. The closest thing the web has right now is a working draft of something called Simple Push which is currently implemented by 0 of the top 5 browsers.

The WWW’s omission from the Apple Watch is hardly a death knell, but I do really hope the web can get it’s act together with regards to push notifications. We’ve been too long without this feature already, and it would go a long way in securing the web’s future relevance.

  1. Some caveats here: Apple has recently allowed websites to send push notifications to Safari users using it’s same proprietary architecture. And yes, web apps can alert you in other ways, like by sending you an email, or changing the title of the page, but that’s not the same as push.