The Emerging War Over Desktop Push Notifications

Push notifications may have grown up on mobile apps. But now the Web is making a comeback because of a push notification innovation introduced by Apple through Safari Mavericks.

Perhaps no other brand understands the power of push notifications as well as Apple, thanks to privileged place of push within the iOS ecosystem. Push notifications are the most critical engagement tool for mobile apps. They serve as a necessary conduit in the flourishing app economy, where iOS remains the prettiest girl in the room.

Push on the desktop, however, is once again making the desktop and the desktop Web browser more relevant to people's lives and their workflows. Because of that, warring standards are already beginning to emerge, though Apple holds the early lead.

How Web Push Works on Desktop

Apple's implementation of push for the Web offers a remarkable user experience. When a visitor lands on a website enabled with Safari’s push technology, they are greeted with a simple dialog that closely mirrors the mobile push experience. The visitor can then opt-in to receive notifications from that site.

As with mobile app push, the user simply declares "Don’t Allow" or "Allow." For those choose "Allow," a direct channel of communication is established between the site and the visitor. Here's what that looks like:

Allow or Do Not

Allow or do not allow—that is the question

When the site sends a notification to its push audience, it will appear in the upper right side of the monitor, as shown in the image below. If the user clicks the notification, a Safari tab opens to the URL associated with the notification.

Push, push it well.


For instance, The Mac Observer's push notifications let you know when new articles have been published. When you click on a notification, you get taken straight to that article.

The notifications themselves have an ephemeral quality, appearing in the monitor for only a few seconds. Messages that are not clicked are archived in the Notification Center for later viewing. Apple’s current implementation archives the most recent six unread messages.

The Developing Standard

There is a developing W3C standard for Web push, but Apple, true to form, is not following it.  Safari push is built atop APNS, the same technology stack used for mobile app push. The W3C standard, when implemented on other browsers, will use a javascript call for registrations. Whether Apple's implementation is 'standard' or not, it creates an incredibly pleasant user experience.

Chrome, Firefox and IE, by contrast, are building to the W3C standard. While there is some wisdom in this, there is also some risk. With Apple’s keen focus on integration, their solution is a seamless presentation. This may be more of a challenge for Google and Mozilla, where separate teams control distinct moving parts of the push system.

Next: By Any Other Name

Page 2 - By Any Other Name


But it’s something of a misnomer to reduce Apple's solution to "browser push" or even "desktop push." In point of fact, Apple gifted the Web with OS X push because the Notification Center is built into the Finder, not the browser. Put differently, it’s not necessary that Safari be active for a notification to be received. When a message is clicked, the browser opens and the URL associated with the notification instigates a new tab.

This is in stark contrast to earlier browser push technologies, like WebSockets, which require that the tab for a website remain open for the communication channel to persist. And although similar in appearance to Growl Notifications, Apple’s Web push does not require the installation of any software by the user - a critical advantage so far as user adoption is concerned.

Chrome and Firefox, are taking a more straightforward approach, and will require the browser to be open to function. To be honest, though, this is not much of an ask. Users often keep their browser of choice open all the time with dozens of tabs and a handful of windows active.

Challenges for Non-Engineers

Apple's Web push is problematic insofar as it’s difficult to integrate. The first hurdle is a $99/year Apple Developer Account, and the actual implementation can be described as labyrinthine.  Even a seasoned developer familiar with all the moving parts will need a couple of weeks to get the most basic pieces working.

It isn’t surprising that third party solutions are emerging. For example, a Y Combinator backed startup named Roost provides a simple javascript solution (as well as plugins for WordPress, Drupal, and Shopify) as well as a metrics dashboard and advanced feature sets, such a geo-targeting, APIs, A/B testing, and audience segmentation capabilities.

That's my company, by the way. I'm one of three cofounders, and our focus is helping sites like TMO implement Apple's desktop push notifications.

Chrome and Firefox look to be somewhat easier to integrate, but supporting all simultaneously will probably push websites to third party solutions to get everything in one package with a bow on top.

Pushing the Envelope Further

At WWDC in June, we saw Apple continuing innovation in the notification space, both on mobile and desktop. The Notification Center got significant development attention in OS X (Yosemite). The Today feature integrates with other parts of the OS. Widgets can be added as well, allowing user customization. Both of these features make the Notification Center more central to the Apple experience. All of these things build on apple Web push experience for desktop.

Today in Yosemite

Today in OS X Yosemite

On the mobile side of the equation, iOS 8 notifications got a lot of love from Apple’s development team, but they did not extend this love to mobile Safari. Web push is not present in the latest builds of iOS 8, and is not mentioned in the surrounding documentation.

And it looks like Chrome and Firefox will one-up Apple in this respect . Both plan to support Web push for mobile browsers - and in the very immediate future. The word on the street is that Chrome push notifications have a mobile release concurrent with the desktop solution.

Who Will Win the War?

Despite the competitive landscape of Web push, Apple is well-positioned to continue to lead the space. Much will depend on how quickly Apple supports push within its mobile browser. If Apple lets Google and Mozilla race ahead as the line between mobile and desktop blurs, then the company may find itself following, instead of leading. And this is all happening before the battle for Web push on desktop has even truly begun.