Notifications and Computing Contexts

Maybe it's just be but I think notifications of events on our computers suck. On OS X there's Growl, and GNU/Linux desktops have the libnotify stuff, and I'm sure there's something on windows, but I don't think this really addresses the problem at hand. Not that the software doesn't work, becuase it mostly does what it says it's going to do. The issue, I think is that we need, or will very shortly need, much more from a notification system than anything around can handle.

Lets back up.

I don't know about you but there are a lot of events and messages that I get or need to get, including: new mail, some instant messages, mentions of cerain words on IRC (perhaps only in certain channels), notifications of when a collaborator has pushed something to a git repository, updates to certain RSS feeds, notifications of the completion of certain long-running commands (file copies, data transferes, etc.) and so forth. I think everyone likely has their own list of "things it would be nice if their computer could tell them about."

The existing notification systems provide a framework that enables locally running applications to present little messages in a consistent, and unified manner. This is great. The issue is that for most of us the things that we need to be notified of aren't locally running. At least in my case, instant messaging, IRC, git, and the key RSS feeds that I want to follow aren't "locally running applications." And to further complicate matters, no matter how your slice things, I use more than one computer, and in an ideal world it would be nice for one machine to know what notifications I'd seen on another computer when I sat down. In other words, my personal notification system should retain memory of what it's shown me and what I've awknowladged across a number of machines.

That doesn't happen. At least not today.

I have a few ideas about the implementation that I will probably cobble together into another post, and I'd love to hear some feedback if any of you have addressed this problem and have solutions.

It strikes me that there are two larger themes at work here:

1. Personal computing events occur locally and remotely, and notification systems need to be able to seemlessly provide these kinds of notifications. While I think a lot of the hype around clound computing is--frankly--absurd, it is fair to say that our computing is incredibly networked.

2. People don't have "a computer," any more, but rather several: phones, desktops, "cloud services," virtual private servers, and so forth. While we use these systems differently, and our own personal "setup" are often unique, we need to move between these setups with ease.

These two shifts, networked computing and multiple computing contexts, affect more than just the the manner in which we receive notifications. But really, I think, outline the ways that the way we use computing has changed in the past few years. There's a lot of buzzwords around this shift, in the web appliacation and cloud computing space particularly, and I don't think that the "hipster"/"buzzword" experience is widely generalizable. It's my hope that these conclusions are more widely applicable and useful: both for the development of a notification system that we need, and for thinking about application development in the future.

Like I said above, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subect, and perhaps we can work on collecting thoughts on the Cyborg Institute Wiki. Take care!

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