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Some very incremental progress has been made on the carrier side, but the original post was specifically aimed at iOS’ outdated UI so it still seems relevant.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]

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

  1. 1. Add a button to the banner UI
    2. The button says ‘Redirect’
    3. The ‘Redirect’ button redirects the call to a phone bank, a service paid for by all providers
    4. The call is immediately picked up. A voice says “How may I help you?” and nothing else
    5. The call is terminated

    – Every number that was redirected will now automatically be sent to that service immediately
    – The spammer never interacts with the user
    – The spammer completes a call to a provider, thereby incurring costs [which pays for the service in the first place]

    The practical upshot is that the user only has to deal with a spammer one time; they can unblock a number should that number turn out to be legitimate.

    The provider has an incentive to provide the service because it will mean massive amounts of ‘completed calls’ which cost the caller some money.

    The spammers will stop making all those spam calls when they incur costs for calls they get nothing out of.

  2. This shouldn’t be a burden on the phone manufacturers. The FCC should enforce laws and make the cellular and home phone operators put in guards to prevent these calls.
    Changing way the phone behaves does not help stop the unwanted spam, it just makes it less visible and harder to get in contact with people for valid reasons.

    This issue is specific to only a few certain counties, and if better, more strict laws were implemented, then this wouldn’t be such an issue.

    For example, why are telecom companies allowing anyone to actively mask their phone numbers. Why are VOIP spam calls allowed and not restricted or throttled. Why do some counties allow a call back number where the caller gets immediately charged a fee.

  3. Even the Android’s call banner doesn’t help.

    When i watch YouTube in full screen and playing games then those call banners are very much annoying!! Tho less annoying than ful screen call notification.

    May be round bubble like call notification( however, that experience is already there in Google’s Phone app, but only after you pickup the call, not available before as call notification.) So during full screen video viewing and gaming you should see only call notification bubble.

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