Essays on Technology and Culture

A Different Future of Our Home Screens

Over at The Verge, Joe Alicata is bemoaning the state of our home screens.

“Home screens come in many flavors. We have semi-customizable experiences from cable TV providers, and the more modern over-the-top streaming content boxes like Roku. The problem with both is the focus on the “app” rather than on the content. When I land on my Apple TV home screen, it’s mostly a grid of apps — there are precious few clues as to what I should actually watch. The interface certainly lacks any notion of what I might want to consume based on previous patterns.”

The idea of a content focused home screen isn’t new with Joe. Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices provide a carousel of recent media and apps, though they don’t make suggestions as to what you might want to look at today. It’s an idea that makes sense on a dedicated content consumption device like a TV, or set-top box. Even on a more general device, be it smartphone, tablet, or computer, it should be easier than it is to view content somewhere else. “If I get a notification that a new piece of content is available and it happens to be a video, it should be easy to push that to my TV without launching the app and finding the funny-looking icon to cast it to my TV. If the TV is already on, shouldn’t it just show up as an option to watch?” I don’t own a TV, but it would be super useful to shoot a link from my iPhone or iPad to my MacBook, connected to a big display, if I want to watch some video content. Handoff in Yosemite and iOS 8 doesn’t do this, at least not yet.

Where it falls down is the idea that “[t]he home screen of the future needs to lead with content…” as a generalization. As I said earlier, this makes perfect sense for a content-consumption device. However, the idea of this kind of interface on a phone gives me the willies. I don’t need my phone buzzing me to check out this cool video a Twitter friend posted, or throwing suggestions out willy-nilly. Even on my iPad, I’d rather it give me the option to consume, or to create. The grid of icons with strange names does make it harder to find what we want or need, but it’s the best balance for devices that serve for consumption and creation tools. For now.

What would be more useful, on a smartphone in particular, is a home screen that adapts to a user based on context. If I’m at home, show me the apps and widgets that are about the things I do at home. For many people, that’s probably about media consumption, so that would be about stuff to control music, video, books, etc. Out and about, the home screen can focus on those apps and services we use while on the go: local search, transit directions, ways to keep in touch with friends. At the office, it’s all productivity and communication.

The technology is there to make a lot of this contextual stuff happen, and it’s less fuzzy than recommendation algorithms. Content consumption is a big part of what we use our gear for, but far from the only thing. Our most personal devices become far more useful, and far more personal, when they adapt to our needs and wants. Getting “relevant content” is nice. Doing relevant tasks, including consuming content, is better.

Let’s move this forward instead.