Your phone’s lock screen is the hottest new property in technology. Apple made the iPhone lock screen a centerpiece of iOS 16, giving users more control over how their screen looks and functions. But while Apple talked about pretty fonts for clocks and nifty color-coordinated wallpapers, it also showed a world where your lock screen is more than just a security measure: it becomes yet another surface on which companies place information, apps, and even advertising be able . Apple is far from the only company thinking about it. TechCrunch reports that Glance, a lock screen content company (which is apparently a thing!) is already in talks with US carriers and plans to launch on some Android phones in the US over the next two months.
The competition for your eyeballs and attention has already moved from apps to your home screen, via widgets and notifications. Now it looks like it’s gone a step further: to the first thing you see when you turn on your phone, before you even pick up or unlock it. That might be at least a step too far.
If you’ve never seen a Glance-running device, you can think of the app like a Snapchat Discover feed on your phone’s lock screen. The company offers a rotating series of headlines, videos, quizzes, games and photos that appear every time your phone screen turns on. Glance, of course, calls these content cards “gapes” and says that users consume these gazes an average of 65 times a day.
And of course everything is full of ads. Glance is a subsidiary of InMobi Group, an Indian ad tech company. It has partnerships with a number of manufacturers, including Samsung and Xiaomi, and the company says its software is built into more than 400 million phones across Asia. Google is an investor in the company; Peter Thiel too.
In a certain light, Glance or something like that makes perfect sense. You don’t have to constantly scour apps for news and information, you don’t even have to unlock your phone, you just trust your device to bring you something interesting every time you turn it on. And a few unobtrusive ads won’t hurt, right? After all, I bought the Kindle with ads on the lock screen to save a few bucks and it doesn’t bother me. (Though I would never have bought the Prime Exclusive phones that came with lock screen ads, and apparently neither would anyone else.)
Apple has embraced this idea and talked about how it sees a more feature-rich lock screen as a way to help you use your phone fewer. Craig Federighi, Apple’s chief software officer, referred to the lock screen as “the face of your phone” and said features like Live Activity could make it easier to get quick info without unlocking your phone and opening yourself up to all the distractions inside to have to. “If you get the answer at a glance, don’t unlock it,” he said, “and once you unlock your phone, you almost forget why you were there in the first place!”
But by opening up this space, these companies offer apps and advertisers the opportunity to get even closer to you. Developers will surely create Live Activities that will remain useful long after they’ve been used, to better grab you every time your phone lights up. Platforms will find ways to pull more of their content onto lock screens and try to lock you into the feed before you even press a button.
In general, most users don’t change their settings, and you better believe developers will use this to their advantage. “Consumers will move from finding content to consuming what is shown to them,” said Naveen Tewari, CEO of InMobi forbes when Glance started. This is super dark! And probably true!
Most importantly, a Glance-like future is a way to push smartphones even further into pure consumer devices. And is “easy access to endless feeds of moderately interesting content” really a worthwhile goal? As we try to recalibrate our relationship with technology, I would argue that we should find places to do it Add Friction to give you what you need when you’re looking at your phone…but also to help you realize that you don’t need to be looking at your phone at all. And if, as Federighi said, the lock screen’s job is to help you avoid distractions, I can’t think of a worse idea than putting a TikTok-style video feed between you and your home screen.
Glance will certainly have competition, but it’s already a good example of where this is all going. June saw Glance Live Fest, a three-day virtual festival that took place entirely on users’ lock screens. It streamed concerts and interactive challenges, live tutorials and interviews, and tons of live shopping content for more than 70 million users. It’s like an opt-out music festival that you’re transported to every time someone texts you. That sounds distracting, frustrating and just plain exhausting.
There’s no question that our lock screens could be better. The whole “notifications running list” thing isn’t great, and a push for more personalization will make a lot of users happy. But this space should only belong to the users and users and not become another breeding ground for distraction and advertising. We should take back control of our phones, not give them away.