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Apps and advertisers will come before your lock screen, and it will be exhausting

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Your phone’s lock screen is the hottest new real estate in technology. Apple made the iPhone lock screen a central part of iOS 16, giving users more control over how their screen looks and works. But while Apple talked about pretty clock fonts and useful color-matched backgrounds, it also showed a world where your lock screen is more than just a security measure: it becomes another surface on which companies can place information, apps, and even advertisements. Apple is far from the only company thinking about this either. TechCrunch reports that Glancea lock screen content company (which apparently is a thing!) is already in talks with US carriers and plans to launch on a number of Android phones in the US in the next two months.

The competition for your eyes and attention has already come from apps and onto your home screen, via widgets and notifications. Now it seems like it takes it one step further: to the first thing you see when you turn on your phone, even before you pick it up or unlock it. That might be at least a step too far.

If you’ve never seen a Glance device, you can imagine the app a bit like a Snapchat Discover feed on your phone’s lock screen. The company offers a varying array of news headlines, videos, quizzes, games, and photos that pop up every time your phone screen turns on. Glance, of course, calls these content cards “cans” and says users consume these cans an average of 65 times a day

Glance is an infinite content engine, on your lock screen
Image: Can

And, of course, it’s all full of advertisements. 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 built into more than 400 million phones in Asia. Google is an investor in the company; so is Peter Thiel.

In a certain light, Glance or something like that is a very sensible idea. You don’t have to constantly pop in and out of apps looking for news and information, you don’t even have to unlock your phone, you trust your device to bring you something interesting every time you turn it on. And a few non-intrusive ads can’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 no one else.)

Apple has echoed this idea by talking about how it sees a more feature-rich lock screen as a way to help you use your phone fewer† Apple software chief Craig Federighi referred to the lock screen as “the face of your phone”, saying that features like Live Activities can make it easier to get information quickly without unlocking your phone and exposing yourself to all the distractions inside. “If you can get the answer at a glance, you won’t unlock,” he said, “and once you unlock your phone, you’ll almost forget why you’re there in the first place!”

It’s a good idea to customize your lock screen!
Image: Apple

But by opening up this space, these companies are giving apps and advertisers a chance to get even closer to you. Developers are sure to build Live Activities that stick around long after they’re ready to be useful, the better for grabbing you every time your phone lights up. Platforms will find ways to pull more of their content to lock screens and try to hook you into the feed before you even press a button.

In general, most users don’t change their settings, and you better bet developers will use that to their advantage. “Consumers will move from searching for content to consuming what is shown to them,” InMobi CEO Naveen Tewari said: Forbes when Glance was launched. That’s super bleak! And probably true!

Above all, a Glance-esque future is a way to further transform smartphones into consumer-only devices. And is “easier access to endless feeds of medium-interesting content” really a worthy goal? While we want to reset our relationship with technology, I’d say we need to find places to to add friction, to give you what you need when you look at your phone… but also to help you realize that you didn’t have to look at your phone at all. And if, as Federighi said, the lock screen’s job is to help you avoid distractions, I can’t imagine 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 great example of where this is all heading. In June it held Can Live Fest, a virtual three-day festival that took place entirely on users’ lock screens. It streamed concerts and interactive challenges, live tutorials and interviews, and a ton of live shopping content, to more than 70 million users. It’s like an opt-out music festival, which you are transported to every time someone texts you. That sounds distracting, frustrating and just downright exhausting.

There is no doubt that our lock screens could be better. The whole “running list of notifications” thing isn’t great, and a push for more personalization is going to make a lot of users happy. But that space should only belong to users and users, not become another breeding ground for distraction and advertising. We should take back control of our phones and not give any more away.

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