WWDC 2018 is fast approaching and Apple-watchers everywhere are preparing their iOS feature wish lists. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit available to make the iPad and iPhone better internet communicators and content-creation and content-consumption devices. But what about making the iPhone a better phone?
I know. “Who uses their phone as a phone?!” Like email, voice phone calls have become a bizarre, legacy, mostly inbound communication channel. As Google controversially pointed out recently, sometimes a phone call is the best or only way to find certain information or accomplish a task. But 90% or more of the calls to my iPhone are junk.
Apple must have realized that spam calls were of rising concern to their users, as they added call blocking capabilities in the CallKit API introduced in iOS 10. This led to an explosion of call-blocking apps in the App Store, some of them scammy in their own right, requiring access to all your contacts in order to function. A few are above-board, not needing your private data. One of them is WideProtect, which I’ve been using for several months now.
These mass blockers are useful for the latest pattern in spam calls here in the United States: spoofing a number similar to the one being dialed, in hopes that it will look “familiar” and get you to pick up. I started by blocking numbers that were extremely similar to mine, differing only in the last three digits. That didn’t stop enough of the spam, so I expanded the range to anything differing in the last 4 digits — 10,000 numbers in total. That seems like a lot, but I’m only using 1% of WideProtect’s blocking potential! CallKit allows each blocker extension to cover 100,000 numbers, but apps can have multiple extensions. WideProtect has 10 extensions for a maximum of 1 million total blocked numbers.
Blocking extensions are far more effective than my old tactic of putting repeat offender numbers into a single contact named “spammers”, but they don’t eliminate the annoyance. CallKit blocking prevents the phone from ringing, but voicemails still come through as notifications. These too are predictable: most are just 2 or 3 seconds of dead air, while others are a robot reading a script about senior care medical devices they want me to purchase. Needless to say, these are the most garbage-y notifications I receive on any given day.
So why can’t iOS eliminate them entirely? Smart handling of voicemail has always been part of the iPhone’s “revolutionary mobile phone” features (Visual Voicemail, as it was then called, was truly unheard of in 2008.) Today, iPhones analyze voicemails on-device to create transcriptions, which are available within notifications via 3D touch. Using that transcription data to suppress notifications could be dressed up as fancy machine learning, but really all that’s required is the type of basic pattern matching that has powered email spam filters for decades. And any good spam filter needs a safeguard against false positives, so offending voicemails could be sorted into the separate Blocked Messages view in the Phone app, rather than being blackholed entirely.
Perhaps the average iPhone user is accustomed to their device being a constantly buzzing annoyance box, and a couple spam calls per day are nothing amongst their dozens of other spam notifications. But I try to keep those annoyances as close to zero as possible. So even though the phone is, most likely, the least important part of the iPhone, robust spam filtering would help it be the best phone available.