Fantastic Four notification on HTC One M9

Those of us who have either the HTC One M8 or this year's M9 overnight were greeted by a slightly odd notification — an apparent advertisement for the upcoming "Fantastic Four" movie. When expanded, the notification appears at first to just be an advertisement. And on one hand it very much is. Look a little closer, though, and it's clearly labeled "Fantastic Four Theme." If you missed that (and I did the first time, even though I knew what I was looking for), tap through and you'll find yourself in HTC's (pretty excellent) themes app, with the opportunity to download the new "Fantastic Four" theme. So is it purely an advertisement? Or a promotion of HTC's own apps and services? Both, of course.

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And this is either the worst thing to ever happen in the history of smartphones, or a non-issue, depending on your predisposition for outrage.

HTC didn't create any greater a sin than any other apps we've seen. But there is room for improvement.

What's one more swipe in the scheme of things, really? And for that matter, what percentage of notifications received on your phone are truly useful? Or what about emails that can be casually dismissed either in the notification area, or by a single swipe in Gmail. I have phones that constantly remind me of the outside temperature, which in August in Florida doesn't mean a damn thing. It's hot. Period.

(My favorite act of swiping ridiculousness also is in Gmail, actually. I'm a little obsessive when it comes to unread items. That means everything in my "Promotions" tab either gets read or swiped at some point — including the ads that Google now sticks up top. Swipe away one of those ads, and Google asks you to tell it why you'd ever do such a thing. Because it's there! is the thought I always think. But that's the end of it. It's gone, and I'm over it. Same was my reaction to the "Fantastic Four" theme.)

Notifications are, of course, noisy by nature. They're actually divided into three priorities in Android 5.0 Lollipop, with the highest priority notifications popping up on whatever you're looking at — heads-up style. That's not what HTC used in promoting the Fantastic Four and its theme, obviously. (And if it had, I'd be singing a completely different tune here.) And I'd argue that HTC has entered a bit of a gray area here, using a notification to promote what certainly is paid-for content — the theme — but that sponsored content is still legit content. And to be fair, HTC publicly told us earlier this year that we'd see more brand partnerships with themes. But if every app on your phone — or even half of them — started promoting things whenever they felt like it, we'd never get anything done.

Fantastic Four theme on HTC One M9

So, a few suggestions for HTC in this case:

Promote sparingly. Folks are going to complain no matter what. This is the Internet, after all. But think long and hard about the frequency of such promotions. Maybe what Marvel (or the movie studio or whomever) paid for the promotion made the backlash worth it this time. But there absolutely is a line that can be crossed. And the bad news is it's probably not visible until you've crossed it.

Make notifications easy to disable. This is all tied into the Sense Home app on HTC's phones. And I can go deep into the app settings and shut down notifications at that level. But that's not a good user experience. HTC should add a simple toggle somewhere allowing users to opt out of those promotion notifications. That's a small thing that will add a lot of goodwill.

Or better yet, have proper notifications. Don't just notify me when you're making money on it. Let me receive notifications on future themes in specific categories of my choosing. Then maybe throw in a recommendation every now and then. That might make the promoted themes a little easier for folks to swallow.

All in all — at least in my book — this isn't a huge thing. It's an opportunity for HTC to surface new content. And it's not like Marvel's some unpopular outlier, either. (The FF theme has been downloaded nearly 10,000 times as of this writing.) But users don't like being surprised, and they don't like not having control. HTC's got plenty of room to continue promoting themes, but also plenty of room to improve the experience.