February 2nd, 2011
Google has recently rolled out a new feature in GMail and Google Chrome which took me by surprise. If you use Chome and GMail (or Google Apps Mail) you may have seen a notification similar to this in your e-mail.
Enabling the notifications brings a feature to online GMail that regular e-mail and chat programs have taken for granted for years – popup notifications. Back when I used to use MSN instant messenger, these were called ‘Toasts’ as they would pop up like a piece of toast coming out of the toaster. Similar notifications have been used by e-mail clients and Instant Messengers to instantly alert users of new activity for a long time – probably ever since such applications have existed. But until now, it wasn’t possible in a web-based application.
This progress makes perfect sense though – GMail is both an e-mail application and an Instant Messaging platform, and I leave both open constantly through the day. However, quite often my wife calls or sends a text message saying ‘I sent you chat messages, where are you?!?’ Now, with desktop notifications, I no longer have the excuse ‘I was in another program, and the sound was off’.
How does it work?
These notifications only work in Google Chrome, because it is not a standard web/browser operation. Google came up with the idea and the implementation to allow GMail to create desktop-like notifications, but it requires support from the browser. This isn’t just some scheme to get people to use Chrome – Google have documented their system, and are proposing it to be an open web standard. Hopefully Mozilla, Apple and Microsoft will implement the required APIs and framework in future versions of their browsers.
Users are also required to give explicit permission for a site to be able to generate desktop notifications. If this weren’t the case, annoying sites would be able to create all sorts of ridiculous and spamy notifications.
My Operating System has its own notification system
What’s interesting about Google’s implementation of these desktop notifications is that it allows for notifications to be deferred to the OS’s default notification system. So, if you’re on a mobile platform you can get convenient notifications, rather than some huge desktop style toast window. If you’re on a Mac, you can get Growl notifications. I’m not sure what the current state of these is, as I have neither a mac nor a smartphone, but this is certainly built into the design.
Is this really useful?
As my previous example illustrates, this is useful for me so that I can notice e-mails and chat messages when they come in. I run GMail in an Application Window, so quite often I can’t see the title bar (with its unread message count and flashing chat indicator) as it’s not in my regular browser window. However, this goes so much further than just e-mail and chat.
While you’re at work, you have open in a browser tab somewhere a live feed of your favourite sporting event. Obviously you can’t sit watching the updates as they come in, and checking every 10 minutes you may miss the exciting information/replays. But if desktop notifications are enabled, you get a small popup each time something interesting happens. Someone kicks a goal, takes a wicket, wins a game, etc. The notification contains a small description of the event. If it’s not interesting enough, or you are too busy at the moment, you ignore it and it disappears. Otherwise, you click on the notification and are taken directly to your open tab where you can watch a replay and see the current score.
Basically, these notifications let you spend more time being productive, rather than hunting through your tabs and windows looking for changes and updates.