Real-time alerts and notifications are a powerful feature being added to more applications every day; the addition of real-time notifications can make a big difference in user experience and peoples' work performance when using apps.

Unfortunately, there's not one standard way to easily code these notifications across platforms and there's very little support for web apps seeking to send notifications to users. It's been one of the advantages that desktop apps have had over the web. That could be about to change.

The web's primary international standards organization, the W3C, has decided to tackle the issue with the formation of a new Web Notification Working Group this week. The Working Group is developing a standardized way for web developers to notify users of an event on a page when they aren't looking at the page itself. This could be key in making web apps just as powerful as native apps on the desktop or mobile device.

The Group has published an Editor's Draft for the specification and it's a good read. The possible implementations accounted for today could be the foundation of vital new features the web apps we use and build tomorrow.

Want a web-based Twitter client with popup desktop messages? A web-based banking app with push alerts to mobile devices? There are a whole lot of possibilities when you imagine combining the advantages of the web with a cross-platform standard for notification APIs.

What's Included

Want a web-based Twitter client with popup desktop messages? A web-based banking app with push alerts to mobile devices? There are a whole lot of possibilities when you imagine combining the advantages of the web with a cross-platform standard for notification APIs.
The document is scoped to define "APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] to generate notifications to alert users outside of the web page." The types of notifications discussed include ambient, interactive and persistent notifications, deliverable cross-platform to a user's screen ala Growl, to an application's chrome or to a mobile device. If you're an alert geek like me, that sounds pretty great.

Alerts like this are generally only possible for desktop apps. Michael Richardson, engineer at Urban Airship, a company that pushes rich media mobile notifications as a service for developers, put it like this:

"Anybody familiar with OS X and Growl has been using things like this for a while. One thing modern desktop notification systems are missing is a standard that allows better communication between web apps and users in front of their computer. Previously, the only method has been email, which sucks. This will be a good step towards promoting web applications as first class citizens."

The W3C draft spec discusses a snooze button for alerts, external device notifications and "simultaneous execution contexts (like a multi-tab email application) to show notifications without creating duplicate notifications." For web apps!

Behind the Scenes

The Working Group is slated to work until the end of January 2012 and is chaired by a 23 year old Dutch engineer from Opera named Anne van Kesteren (@annevk). The draft spec was edited by John Gregg, a Microsoft-turned-Google software engineer who led development of the Webkit desktop notifications API that Chrome recently made accessible to extension developers. Discussion of the web notifications standard will occur over a public email list that appears not to have been initiated yet.

This should be one to watch; this could be a key group in building a foundation for the real-time web user interfaces of the future.

Thanks to Palm's Dion Almaer for being the first within our circle to mention this.