The Good, the Bad, and the Terrible of Safari Push Notifications

For a brief moment on June 10th, it seemed like Apple was going to support notification syncing between your iPhone and your Mac. It seemed like they said if you got, say, a New York Times push notification on your phone, you could get it on your Mac as well. That feature turned out to be just Safari Push Notifications — an option to let websites push notifications to your Mac the same way mobile apps push notifications on your iPhone. A nice feature still, perhaps, but nothing that’d bring the iOS and OS X synergy we thought was coming.

And yes, Safari Push Notifications are a good idea and a nice new feature, to a degree. But at the same time, they can be one of the most infuriating, in-your-face new features on the Mac. Here’s why.

The Good

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Notifications, in general, are a good thing. Mac users fussed over their Growl settings for years, and yearned first for push notifications and later for less intrusive push notifications on iOS. And now, we’ve got all the notifications we’d want, and more. There’s simple drop-down notifications on iOS, and similar notifications on the Mac — and Growl even joined the native Notifications game. For those who like to stay informed, you can’t escape staying informed these days, no matter what platform you’re using.

And yet, there’s a problem. Everything imaginable has a mobile app, but on the Mac and PC, websites still rule the roost for information-heavy resources. The New York Times and your favorite blog aren’t going to make a native Mac app, even if they have a mobile app complete with push notifications. There’s really no need to push beyond the browser for most stuff, when one web site can meet the needs of all computers and really most tablets at once. But there’s no push notifications.

So, Apple introduced push notifications for Safari. You visit a site that supports it, and you’ll see a popup that lets you opt-in to receiving push notifications. Then, when that site pushes a notification (say, of breaking news or a new message in your chat web app), you’ll get a familiar push notification that’ll lead to the content in question. Notifications will still come through even if Safari isn’t running, just as you’d expect from your mobile devices’ native apps. It just works.

If you’ve ever wanted a simple way to stay informed by some sites — the aforementioned chat apps are a great use case, say, or breaking news notifications for your favorite newspaper, or notifications when you win auctions from eBay — then it can be good.

The Bad

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Perhaps you like getting notifications from a few sites, and you’re enjoying having Push Notifications around. That’s nice. But you’ll quickly get frustrated if you subscribe to a site that’s too chatty and sends you notifications all the time. Worse, still, is that sites with older traditional notifications (ones that’ll come through only when you have that site open in your browser) will show up right alongside sites with newer push notifications (that come regardless of whether or not the site is open or Safari is running), so you just might end up missing out on notifications when you’d assume they’d come in automatically once you’re used to push.

Then, you’ll have your pick of tweaking each site’s notifications individually from your main OS X Notifications settings, where you can tweak each site’s settings just like you would an app’s notifications, or from Safari’s settings, where you can simply allow or deny each site’s notifications. And, yes, every site you’ve ever visited that’s offered notifications will show up in the settings.

And, of course, if you’re not watching the top right corner of your Mac all day long, you’ll likely miss some notifications. That’s not so bad — except for the fact that Notification Center is usually a mess of old notifications, and nearly 80% of us don’t regularly check it according to our poll last week. That means those notifications that were supposed to keep you informed are just as likely to be forever alone.

The Ugly

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The worst thing about notifications is that they’re noisy, and take your focus away from what you’re doing. That’s bad enough. But with Safari Notifications, they also will take you a second of thought every time you visit a new site that offers them. You’ll see a drop-down alert pane asking to allow or disallow notifications the first time you visit a site that offers Safari Notifications, and that’s incredibly annoying. Say, for instance, that I wanted to receive notifications from your site, but I just heard of it 3 days ago. I might want to enable notifications today, but I definitely didn’t want to enable them 3 days ago when I stumbled across your site thanks to a Google search. Asking right off the bat with a option pane that can’t be simply ignored is a step too far.

Perhaps a better way would be to show a dismissible bar at the top of the web page, similar to App Banners on iOS that link to a site’s native app. It’d be extra clutter, perhaps, but at least it wouldn’t take an extra second of your time to dismiss.

But then, somehow, I can’t escape the feeling that Safari Push Notifications are, in general, a bad idea for the web. Instead of building a new way to take advantage of existing web tech — such as the way Firefox supports “Live Bookmarks” from a site’s standard RSS feed — developers will have to build new server-side infrastructure to support Safari Push Notifications, and add code to their sites that only helps one subset of their users: Mac users who use OS X Mavericks and have Safari as their default browser. It doesn’t push the web itself forward, and doesn’t add something that can help everyone.

In many ways, it reminds me more of something Microsoft would try, as they have with IE 9’s Pinned Sites and IE 11’s live tiles for sites on Windows 8. Both of those, along with Safari Push Notifications, can be nice, but at the end of the day they’re one extra thing web developers will have to add specifically for a small subset of their users. And typically, it’s features like that which get killed off the first, both by the platform providers and 3rd party websites themselves. It’s hard enough to support the open responsive web, and throwing in extra platform-specific features on your site is a tough sale.

The World’s a Noisy Place

Safari’s a great browser, one that’s faster than ever in v.7 with OS X Mavericks, and its Webkit core has done more to push the standards-compliant web forward than almost any other project in recent years. That’s a very, very good thing. And yet, the new Push Notifications are, in my opinion, a bad direction for the browser. It used to have great RSS support, but that’s been lost along the way, now to be replaced in part by a proprietary notifications system that only works in Safari for Mac. That doesn’t mesh well with the original Webkit that’s empowered others to build standards-compliant and fast browsers for every platform on earth — one that pushes the open web forward, and doesn’t tie it down to one platform.

Of course, that’s perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill. At the end of the day, if you like getting notified when major things happen on your favorite sites, a number of them are already supporting push notifications and you can add them and stay informed with little effort. That’s good. I just hope Apple finds a way to make them less intrusive, or gives us an option to turn them off globally.