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Apple is trying to make your devices less distracting

Our smartphones, smartwatches, laptops, and tablets are awash in notifications. Bings, beeps, and dings regularly vie for our attention. Heck, I regularly think my phone is buzzing even when it isn’t.

And checking those alerts, real or imagined, usually ends up with you scrolling through an endless parade of unrelated apps until your wife tells you to put your phone away during your romantic dinner date.

Apple (AAPL), however, is looking to change that by giving you the information you need when you want it. According to Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi, the solution lies in widgets.

Small, interactive bits of apps that live on your iPhone’s home and lock screen, Apple Watch — and now Mac — widgets, Federighi explained, put the control over devices back into users’ hands.

“Notifications, of course, can pull you out of the moment and take away, in some ways, your agency, because now it's happening to you,” Federighi told Yahoo Finance. “Not when you want to know the information but when someone wants to push it on you. And so we saw a way to correct that.”

Apple hopes widgets and the Dynamic Island, can help cut down on user distraction while using its iPhones. (Image: Apple)
Apple hopes widgets and the Dynamic Island, can help cut down on user distraction while using its iPhones. (Image: Apple)

Widgets aren’t a new concept. Microsoft (MSFT) rolled them out as far back as 2007 as part of its ill-fated Windows Vista. You’d be forgiven if you scrubbed that particular episode from your memory, though. Google's (GOOG, GOOGL) Android has also been offering widgets for some time as a means of customizing your home screen as you see fit. But Apple is bringing them to its entire ecosystem of devices.

The company has been carefully rolling out widgets across its software lines over the last few years, first introducing them to the iPhone in 2020 with iOS 14, and adding them to the Apple Watch as Smart Stack in watchOS 10, and the Mac with macOS Sonoma.

The idea is to surface the information you want quickly without having to open up your apps or scroll through a slew of unrelated notifications.

“In the end, we've created such a better experience, but also a much calmer, simpler, quieter experience across the system,” explained Alan Dye, Apple’s vice president of human interface. “So we're really excited about it and really excited about what everyone's doing. And we think this is only the beginning.”

Apple's macOS Sonoma features new widget designs similar to those found on the iPhone and iPad. (Image: Apple)
Apple's macOS Sonoma features new widget designs similar to those found on the iPhone and iPad. (Image: Apple)

Apple’s push into widgets isn’t just a means of quieting those relentless dings. According to Federighi, it’s also a way to keep you from unlocking your phone to check one app only to look up 20 minutes later with a stiff neck after browsing Reddit, scrolling Instagram, and reading a brief summary of string theory — which you definitely understand after perusing that single Wikipedia page.

According to Dye, Apple began toying with the idea of adding more compact, glanceable areas for users to get information when it was developing complications for the Apple Watch. Small bits of the screen that provide data such as your heart rate, the weather, and calendar information, complications have become the basis by which many users interact with their watches.

That thinking has gone from the small squares you see on your home screen to the Live Activities found in iPhone’s Dynamic Island. Live Activities for the Dynamic Island provide pertinent information like fantasy scores and how far away your Uber is via the small, pill-shaped cutout at the top of the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 15 lines’ screens.

Live Activities also appear on your lock screen, giving you quick access to pressing notifications without forcing you to unlock your phone.

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I use Live Activities for the Yahoo Fantasy app on my iPhone 14 Pro every Sunday. It’s a quick, easy way to check in on how badly my fantasy team is losing without opening the app and invariably second-guessing every player I choose to play or sit.

But if Apple users get everything they need from widgets, where does that leave the first- and third-party apps we’ve collected over the years? Do they become less useful? Not necessarily, Federighi said.

“I think the app usage is much more intentional, right? You [used] it at the moment you wanted to dive in, when it was the right time for you, and not when you were pulled in,” he added.

Whether Apple can get users to actually change the way they use their devices, however, remains to be seen. Being able to get your information in quick, bite-sized chunks is incredibly helpful, but, outside of Live Activities, I often find widgets as a kind of gateway to falling deeper into apps.

Widgets on the Mac and Apple Watch have made it easier to quickly get the info I need and keep it moving. But on the iPhone, even the weather widget pulls me in further at times. Though that's usually because I'm trying to check the humidity since I'm a big-time sweater.

That said, as Apple continues to evolve its widget strategy, I'm hoping we reach a point where stealing a quick glance at your phone is all you need. And so is my wife.

Daniel Howley is the tech editor at Yahoo Finance. He's been covering the tech industry since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielHowley.

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