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Last update: November 2021

4 mins to read - 2021/11/15

A Brief History of the Evolution of Push Notifications

They’re such an integral part of our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time without them. Push notifications keep us abreast of breaking news, they help us communicate with our friends, and they let us know when there’s something that needs our attention, whether it’s a new email or a new Pokemon in the neighborhood. But notifications can be a double-edged sword. The average US smartphone receives 46 push notifications per day, and some receive much more. How did we get to be so inundated with pings from our mobile apps? And, more importantly, where does the future of push notifications lie? Find out below, with our brief history of push notifications.

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History of Push Notifications: The Origins

Without going to far back into the reaches of smartphone history, the first proto-mobile push notifications were email alerts for BlackBerry devices. Think of these alerts from the early Noughties as the Homo Erectus to modern-day push notifications’ Homo Sapiens. It wasn’t until June 2009 that Apple adapted this instant notification experience for its iPhone 3.0, with the unveiling of the Apple Push Notification Service (APNS).

In Apple’s original push framework, a unique data identifier known as a push token is sent from the device to the app backend. The push token is then sent to APNS for processing. Push tokens are blasted out in batches from APNS, on a last-one-in, first-one-out basis. At the time, it was a novel technology. And despite their simple, text-only design, users were thrilled to be on the cutting edge of mobile connectivity. Google soon followed suit with their introduction of Cloud-to-Device Messaging (C2DM) for Android devices. In 2013, C2DM became Google Cloud Messaging for Android devices, which rebranded as Firebase Cloud Messaging in 2016.

The information age had hit its zenith… However, history would soon note that such uncontrolled connectivity had a dark side, as push notifications were ripe to be exploited by the drivers of the attention economy.

steve jobs history of push notifications

Push Notifications and Data Leveraging

Developers soon caught on that notifications saw higher click-through rates (CTR) when they put more effort into improving notification UX. This led to the launch of Android’s Rich Push in 2013, which provided users rich notifications capable of combining text with emoticons, images, and push action buttons. A few years later, iOS would improve on this by enabling GIFs, video, and audio content to be sent via push as well.

Along the way, developers also began leveraging user data to be able to send more personalized push notifications. For example, by processing user data, developers were able to tailor notifications to be more interesting or relevant to various user segments, making it more likely that the user will click. Access to users’ geolocation data meant brands could send notifications to users who had their app on their phone at a moment when they were close to a brick-and-mortar store, and thus more likely to make a purchase. eCommerce apps could send users push notifications to sell them items based on their history of past purchases.

Many users began to feel that their apps were becoming too invasive, and keeping too many tabs on them. The push notification industry became a free-for-all of different apps trying to drown out their competitors by sending the most engaging push notifications (or, what was usually the case, just the most push notifications) in hopes of grabbing a larger portion of their user’s attention. What’s more, many push notification SDKs were selling user data to 3rd-party advertisers, often unbeknownst to the users themselves.

The mobile industry had hit peak push notification fatigue. And that was when the pendulum began to swing the other way.

Push Notifications That Reaffirm User Privacy and Control

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, device users were more aware than ever before of who was accessing their data, and what they were doing with it. Data privacy regulations worldwide updated themselves to better protect the masses of personal data people were generating with their mobile devices. In the interests of avoiding fines from regulations like GDPR and COPPA, many push notification platforms discontinued free services where apps “paid” them with user data.

Change was coming from the device level as well. Apple once again proved itself an industry leader, placing privacy safeguards in place for iOS users. In addition to this, with every iteration of iOS Apple has introduced new transparency frameworks and controls for the user to choose how they want to receive their push notifications. Famously, since the iOS 12, Apple has operated an opt-in framework for notifications, in which users receive a prompt from the app asking if they want to allow push notifications.

Apple has gone even further since then, by implementing App Tracking Transparency in the iOS 14.5, meaning apps need to gain user consent to track their IDFA (Identification for Advertisers) across different apps and websites. What’s more, their iOS 15 has unveiled various focus modes, allowing users to set up different filters to screen push notifications from certain apps at certain times. They have also included Message Summaries, which witholds all push notifications and then sends them in clusters at set times throughout the day. The apps a user interacts with most frequently are the ones whose notifications appear at the top of the summary.

The Future of Push Notifications

Clearly, there is still a learning curve to finding the sweet spot for push notifications that are personalized and timely, but that respect user preferences with regard to data privacy. Many signs point to the possibility that, in the future, all data leveraging by mobile apps will be done entirely device-side, using mobile edge computing.

OpenBack is currently an industry leader in this regard, thanks to its hybrid platform that uses machine learning to leverage user data directly on the device. By removing the cloud server from the push notification architecture, OpenBack makes it so that user data never has to leave the device. 3rd parties never have to have access to user data, and users remain in complete control and ownership of their own information. Because of this, OpenBack is the only push notification platform that is fully compliant with all regional privacy regulations by default.

To learn more about how OpenBack is a leader in the mobile engagement industry thanks to its use of device-side computing, get in touch with one of our experts.

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