product thoughts

In 2020, Apple needs to change iPhone’s call UI because robocalls are killing us

A year ago I published this and it struck a chord on the internet, hitting #4 on Reddit and #1 on HN (it actually triggered the “flamewar” detector there). So I thought I’d republish the post since the default UI for incoming calls remains the same. Otherwise, what’s publicly changed on Apple’s side of things (other than this alleged email response from an exec) includes some tools for filtering unknown callers, which look helpful but aside from the original gripe. Some very incremental progress has been made on the carrier side, but the original post was specifically aimed at iOS’ outdated UI so it still seems relevant.

Right now, any robocall hacker in the world can instantly take over your phone’s screen, knocking you out of your mobile gaming experience, disrupting you as you check out at the store, or breaking your concentration as you try and type out an email. (For that matter, calls from your contacts will also perhaps be more disruptive than you’d like them to be.)

And disrupt they do, at a massive scale. Several billion fake calls are received each month in the US. Reports show this is a global problem, with Brazilians averaging 37 spam calls per month. Actually, I’m getting a robocall as I type this very sentence, my second today.

At the telelphony-infrastructure level, it’s a supremely difficult problem that lacks a short-term fix because the underlying protocol is hopelessly insecure.

But from a user-experience perspective, there’s a simple way to make things more manageable. Apple should let incoming calls show up as a banner notification, not a full screen alert.

What was magical in 2007 has become a major annoyance

It’s absolutely bonkers that millions of smartphone users get their full screen taken over by robocallers on a daily basis. Tapping Decline is not a great option because it actually tells the robocaller that you’re with your phone and are annoyed by the call, information I’d rather not give.

The jailbreak community for iOS saw this need years ago, and an app called CallReply tweaked the phone UI to let incoming calls appear as banner notifications.

When will Apple follow suit?

One commenter on Hacker News pointed out: “This annoyance is three-fold when a call from your iPhone also takes over your iPad screen and rings on your MacBook.”[1] Fair point!

Another exclaims there’s lack of call filtering options available in iOS, I completely agree – as blocking individual numbers is totally ineffective in blocking robocall spam. “I would love to be able to block all numbers coming from my area code and the first 3 digits of my number.. all my robo calls come from a number that looks just like mine.” [2]

Another points out, the carriers could taking some steps to limit robocalls, but may be dragging their feet because it’s (arguably) in their commercial interests to let it flourish. While I agree there’s a lot more the carriers could be doing to flag “inauthentic” behavior of network participants, the root cause of SS7’s lack of authentication and encryption will remain. But yes, carriers are definitely on the hook for making things better too. [3]

Yet another commenter remarks about how Google has dealt with this issue: “Fwiw, Android actually does do this. When the phone is unlocked, calls show up as a banner. In addition, they added that new call screening option, I’ve been using it and so far it has worked fairly well. Also, there is some built-in call filtering and third party apps as well, though I have mostly been able to rely on the built-in filtering. Does iOS really not have any options for filtering? I swear last time I had an iPhone (running iOS9) there was Something… but then again, I was jailbroken. It’s a bit funny that we got full web browsers on phones before proper call filtering. (Disclaimer: I work for Google but not on phones.)” [4]