Android Q dreaming: Imagine the notification inbox

Smartphone notifications come and go and are all too easy to get lost in the shuffle. What if there were a better way?

Android Q Notification Inbox
mohamed_hassan, modified by IDG Comm

When you stop and think about it, we've reached a really interesting point in the evolution of smartphone software. By and large, the foundation for our mobile tech devices these days is pretty darn decent — "mature," as people who take themselves a little too seriously like to say.

That means we don't see many of the seismic shifts that used to be near-annual occurrences anymore — y'know, the dramatic redesigns and interface rebirths that were almost comically common in the years from Froyo to Lollipop.

And you know what? That's not necessarily a bad thing. With a solid foundation in place, the folks responsible for Android can focus on under-the-hood improvements in areas like performance and privacy along with small but significant above-the-surface enhancements — the sorts of tweaks and additions that may not dramatically change our virtual environments but do make some part of our lives a little more pleasant. If you ask me, those types of changes are often the ones that deliver the most noticeable day-to-day impact.

Particularly with this week's alleged leak of an early Android Q development build, I've been thinking a lot about the next Android release and what sorts of user-facing advances it could include that'd build upon the operating system's foundation while moving things forward in a meaningful way — something more than a system-wide dark mode (sensible as that may be) or the arbitrary redesign of the notification panel that's become a bit of an annual tradition as of late. And an idea I keep coming back to is something I like to think of as the notification inbox.

Allow me to explain: Right now, notifications are built to be temporary. They pop up once, and then they go away. You can easily forget about them or inadvertently dismiss 'em, and they're usually lost if your phone restarts. They're ephemeral, in other words — and consequently, they're unreliable. That's why I've resorted to cobbling together my own complicated workaround to have especially important things like reminders appear in my email inbox in addition to popping up as notifications on my phone. That way, they still ping me — but I know they're somewhere permanent, too, and I won't risk overlooking them or losing track of them before I take action.

And that brings us back to the concept of the notification inbox: What if Android's notification panel were itself an inbox — a collection of important incoming items that's treated much like the inbox for your email? You'd see new notifications arrive in the panel at the top of your phone, just as you do now, but instead of ultimately disappearing into some unknown ether when they leave that area, they'd stay there until you dealt with them — even if your phone restarted. They'd remain present, in fact, until you swiped them away to archive them or snooze them for later delivery.

Sure, Android has a snooze function now — something I wished for in a similar manner three years ago, fittingly enough — but it feels like a rough, half-committed implementation of the concept, and it hasn't progressed in any consequential manner since its debut. It's not intuitive to access, its options are annoyingly limited, and it functions within that same ephemeral ether as the rest of Android's notifications. (Ever snoozed a notification and then restarted your phone?)

So consider this: What if, instead, Android's notification snoozing worked just like snoozing in Gmail? You'd swipe a notification to the left, and a menu would instantly pop up offering to send the info away until the next morning, afternoon, or evening — or to any specific day, time, or even location that you want. Imagine how powerful it'd be to get an alert about a message and to be able to quickly and easily tell your phone to take it away and then bring it back to your attention at 5:00, when you're done with work — or maybe even when you get to the grocery or your house, at whatever time either might occur.

That part is actually something I've been hoping to see since 2017 — but it's just one small part of the notification inbox notion. In addition to swiping to the left to snooze, you could swipe to the right to archive a notification instead of dismissing it. Yes, oh yes: Rather than briefly appearing and then vanishing for good, your past notifications could always remain a tap away, in your full inbox — just like what happens with messages in Gmail. With, say, a tap at the bottom of your notification panel, you could open up your complete inbox and find every notification that had ever arrived on your phone (except for any that you opt to delete, of course; just like with Gmail, that'd have to remain an option). Missed a call, a reminder, or a message from any app and can't remember the details? No problem: Just pull up your notification inbox and browse or search to find it.

Ideally, the inbox would be like other bits of Android-connected data and would be synced to your Google account so that it'd follow you from phone to phone — and even be available on a Chromebook or other device where you're signed into your Google account. Treating notifications in that way just makes sense, and simple as it may seem on the surface, it'd be a monumental upgrade and productivity enhancement to your mobile tech setup.

(Even more ideally, an Android notification inbox could exist as part of a centralized, all-in-one inbox for all of your important stuff — emails, reminders, saved articles, and so forth — but that's basically the Inbox app model, and Google's made it pretty clear that sort of all-in-one setup is no longer what it's pursuing.) 

I realize, of course, that there are already ways to get to a limited notification history on an Android phone — as well as third-party apps that try to create a slightly less limited version of that same concept. None of that, though, is particularly powerful or pleasant to use. It doesn't feel like a native part of the operating system, and it doesn't connect to the actual notification panel in any useful way. Building a true native notification inbox would take the idea further than any tacked-on implementation can possibly go, and it'd have the potential to be one of Android's most meaningful leaps forward and most compelling points of differentiation in quite some time.

As we think ahead to Android Q and beyond, that's exactly the sort of improvement we need to see.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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