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Apple’s biggest iOS 8 win might just be notifications

Notifications in Apple iOS 8.Notifications in Apple iOS 8.
Notifications in Apple iOS 8.Illustration courtesy Apple

Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone notifications work pretty well. They’re a convenient way for an app to pop an alert on your screen to say something has happened while you weren’t using it. They even work when the phone is locked, so you can see if the SMS that just made your phone buzz in your pocket is important or not. (In fact, they’ve proven to be a little too good—a constant distraction. But I digress.)

The current crop of smartwatches, a type of device still very much in its infancy, seems tailor-made for the notification. Typified by the runaway Kickstarter success Pebble, the smartwatch serves as limited-feature companions to smartphones. A smartwatch puts a notification closer to your eyes—thanks to a flick of the wrist—so you can check what an incoming alert says, or even see who’s calling you, without digging a phone out of your pocket or purse.

But Apple’s notifications are limited, and display-only. Both Google’s (GOOG) Android (with its widgets) and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone (with its Live Tiles) offer a more dynamic way to check real-time alerts. Nonetheless, the entire process is rather futile: To act on a notification, you must fish your phone out of that pocket or purse anyway, unlock it, and launch the app in question.

Paul Veugen, an iOS developer behind a health app called Human, says that Apple’s current iPhone notifications are limited because they rapidly become overwhelming. The notifications list on the lock screen fills with “so many useless, disrupting notifications for most apps,” he says. “I’m one of these guys that turns off notifications because they don’t work. It’s just not interesting to receive 50 different notifications for ‘likes’ on Facebook.”

What Apple really needs, Anirudh Coontoor, an app developer at the Indian firm MetaRain, is a way to “display and clear trivial notifications instead of opening the apps” that have triggered the alerts in the first place.

Last week, Apple gave the public its first look at iOS 8, the newest version of its mobile operating system, at its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Much of the coverage during and after the event focused on Apple’s introduction of HealthKit, its fitness tracking software, a new family-friendly iTunes account structure, a new QuickType keyboard, and a new programming language, Swift.

But the company also completely revamped its notifications system, and created a way for third-party apps to run information-rich, so-called widgets that go beyond a simple line of text. In iOS 8, you’ll be able to tap on an alert and perform an action—so if your colleague sends you a meeting invite, you can just accept on the spot, instead of see it, click on it, launch the calendar app, and accept it.

At the event, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, showed off the improvement. His eBay app provided a dynamic, updating widget to report on a live auction in which he was bidding. With a tap, Federighi was able to increase his bid without launching the app itself.

The development is very exciting for app developers. Paul Veugen says his Human app is all about measuring a person’s motions through the day and then prompting them to get moving and complete 30 minutes of exercise; interactive notifications could really boost the app’s abilities. “Smarter widgets will allow us to put our app in front of users almost 24/7,” he says, “and will help nudge them into smarter decisions about their health.”

Apps that thrive on repeated interactions with users will certainly benefit from Apple’s overhaul. But Coontoor is equally excited about the underlying technology, and plans to use widgets to improve his social photo aggregation app Colorbay. In the future, it could show “small thumbnails of three or four photos from all your feeds, and say, ‘This many photos have been updated since you last opened the app,’ ” he says. And if Colorbay can do it, so can Instagram.

But Apple’s new notifications may have the greatest impact on the next wave of smartwatches—or in Apple’s case, its first. The system allows for a far more dynamic smartwatch design than is currently available, allowing apps to push meaningful and actionable information to a wrist-bound device.

Few outside of Apple’s walls know for certain whether the company plans to make a wearable device, let alone one worn on the wrist. (Apple traditionally introduces new products in fall and announces others in winter; time will tell whether today’s rumors are based in tomorrow’s reality.) But other technologies introduced during WWDC, such as peer-to-peer AirPlay video sharing between devices and the ability to transfer phone calls from an iPhone to a Mac, suggest that Apple is finally focused enough on interoperability to make an iPhone-iWatch combination possible.

Just as long as the watch doesn’t become its own source of complication, and by extension, frustration. “You know, the simple, most frequent alerts are those that need just a tap: Accept, decline, and so on,” says iOS developer Gilad Hertanu, who built the personal assistant app 24me. The smartwatch that gets it right? “It’s going to be much more productive and fun.”