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Beepocalypse: How Apple could improve multi-device reminders


Today, beloved leader Victor pointed me to this write-up over at Tidbits. Although Joe Kissel's experience with quite so many devices (nine, I believe) falls a bit into the extremes of iOS/OS X use, the problem of dealing with distributed alarms is a real one: a single reminder can set off alerts all over the home or office. Surely, there's got to be a better way to focus alert attention.

Victor asked if I could brainstorm some geek solutions up that might help coordinate reminders with multi-device deployment (I won't even try to figure out "how to deal with bosses who remind you about too much stuff with shared calendars"). The idea is to let users choose reminder strategies across several devices: Macs, iPads, iPhones, etc.

The strategy brought up by Kissel was to add "do not disturb" buttons and slight time offsets to alerts. The opt-in would allow you to disable alerts either per-device or per-Apple ID. The offsets would allow users to respond to a dialog, allowing them to accept the reminder and disable triggers on other devices. The only slight problem with the time offsets approach is determining which device gets priority.

You can imagine being in bed, exhausted, sleepy and hearing a slightly long symphony of beeps that finally arrives at the iPhone on your bedside. Being able to prioritize a device (e.g. "always alert this iPhone first") would certainly help.

I also started thinking about activity -- and, specifically, giving priority to any device experiencing touches and mouse and key interaction (e.g. "always alert active devices first"). An active use pattern generally links to a human presence -- the likely target of a reminder. It's an easy way to connect alert reception to an audience.

Devices could trigger in order of most recent use, with the reminder ending once a user taps an acknowledge key. In the worst case, the reminder lasts 9 times longer than it did originally, but in the best case, only the most active device is triggered. Per Apple ID, of course. Your partner's devices would have its own alert chain.

But that doesn't take location into account . If your devices are idle but in distributed locations, say one at home, and one at work, which takes priority? Perhaps you'd want both to ring because there's no a priori knowledge of your location. Or maybe you'd want it to alert at work first and then home (e.g. "prioritize work").

And at home? If you have a device downstairs and another upstairs, they may seem to be at the same location-to-detection algorithms, but you certainly would want to be reminded of lunch no matter which floor you're on. At the same time, you'd think devices could potentially figure out they're clustered together.

What if Apple, in addition to slight time delays, could listen to hear alerts from triggers they know would happen on a related device in their Apple ID family (e.g. "listen for duplicate alerts")?

You might be able to skip the active "Okay I get it" button then. Devices could actively suppress extra alerts by listening for ones in their vicinity. The problem again, would be if two Apple IDs were linked to similar reminders but didn't share calendars explicitly.

For this, Apple could build in a "coordinate my alerts with..." option and harmony would once again reign in the land of the multi-device family.

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