Your phone’s lock screen is the hottest new property in technology. Apple made the iPhone’s lock screen a centerpiece in iOS 16, giving users more control over how theirs looks and works. But while Apple talked about pretty clock fonts and smart color-matched wallpapers, it also showcased a world where your lock screen is more than just a security measure; it’s becoming another surface where companies can put information, apps, and even ads. Apple is far from the only company thinking about this, too. 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 in the next two months.
Apps and advertisers are coming for your lock screen and it’s going to be exhausting
The competition for your eyes and attention has already moved out of apps and onto your home screen through widgets and notifications. Now it looks like it’s going one step further: to the first thing you see when you turn on your phone before you even pick it up or unlock it. That may be at least one step too far.
If you’ve never seen a device running Glance before, one way to imagine the app is as a Snapchat Discover feed on your phone’s lock screen. The company serves up a rotating set of news headlines, videos, quizzes, games and photos that appear every time your phone screen is turned on. Glance calls these content cards “glances,” and says users use these glances 65 times a day on average.
And of course it’s all filled with ads. Glance is a subsidiary of InMobi Group, an Indian advertising technology company. It has partnerships with a number of manufacturers, including Samsung and Xiaomi, and the company says its software is embedded in more than 400 million phones around Asia. Google is an investor in the company – and so is Peter Thiel.
In a certain light, Glance or something like that is a perfectly reasonable idea. You don’t have to constantly dive in and out of apps in search of news and information – you don’t even have to unlock your phone. You just trust the device to give you something interesting every time you turn it on. And a couple of non-intrusive 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. (Although I would never have bought the Prime Exclusive phones that came with ads on the lock screen, and apparently neither would anyone else.)
The lock screen can help you use your phone less – or it can be a new source of distraction
Apple has echoed this idea, talking about how it sees a more feature-rich lock screen as a way to help you use your phone less. Apple software chief Craig Federighi referred to the lock screen as “the face of your phone” and said features like Live Activities can make it easier to get quick information without having to unlock your phone and open yourself up to all the distractions inside. “If you can get the answer in an instant, then you don’t unlock,” he said, “and once you unlock your phone, you almost forget why you’re there in the first place!”
But by opening up this space, these companies offer apps and advertisers a chance to get even closer to you. Developers are sure to build Live Activities that stick around long after they’ve finished being useful—all the better to grab you every time your phone lights up. Platforms will find ways to pull more of the content on lock screens, trying to hook you into the feed before you even press a button.
Generally speaking, most users don’t change their settings, and you’d better believe that developers will use that to their advantage. “Consumers will move from seeking content to consuming what is shown to them,” said InMobi CEO Naveen Tewari Forbes when Glance was launched. It is very gloomy and probably true!
Most of all, a Glance-like future is a way to turn smartphones even more into consumption-only devices. And is “easier access to endless feeds of moderately interesting content” really a worthy goal? As we try to reset our relationship with technology, I would argue that we should find places to add friction, to give you what you need when you’re looking at your phone… but also to help you realize you didn’t need to look at your phone at all. And if, as Federighi said, the lock screen’s job is to help you avoid distraction, 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 headed. In June, it held Glance Live Fest, a three-day virtual festival that took place exclusively on users’ lock screens. It streamed concerts and interactive challenges, live tutorials and interviews, and tons of live shopping content to more than 70 million users. It’s like an opt-out music festival that you’re transported to every time someone sends you a text. It sounds distracting, frustrating and downright exhausting.
There is no doubt that our lock screens could be better. The whole “rolling list of notifications” thing isn’t great, and a push for more personalization will make a lot of users happy. But that space should belong to users and users only, not become yet another breeding ground for distraction and advertising. We should be taking back control of our phones – not giving more of it away.