iPhone 5 Screen: Will Things Get Ugly?
With the introduction of the iPhone 5, Apple may finally enlarge the smartphone's screen. While a larger screen would provide much more interface space for apps, it would also mean developers will have yet another display size to deal with. That won't necessarily make it impossible to run old apps on new hardware, but it may lead to aesthetic compromises.
May 18, 2012 5:00 AM PT
Should Apple decide to increase the display size of the next version of its bestselling iPhone, it could present developers with new sets of both challenges and opportunities.
Speculation about Apple boosting the screen found on the next edition of its smartphone isn't new, but it was renewed this week with The Wall Street Journal predicting the new iPhone would have a display of at least four inches. Reuters, with a little more precision, pegged it at 4.6 inches.
What will that larger screen mean for developers?
"It creates problems and opportunities, as with anything," observed Lisa Calkins, CEO of mobile applications developer Amadeus Consulting.
She doesn't see any problems with the functionality of an app written for a smaller screen running on an iPhone with a larger display. "It isn't that the app wouldn't functionally work, but it may not look as great as it would have looked when it was smaller."
No Big Stretch?
It's not as if Apple hasn't had to deal with this problem before. When it introduced the iPad, it had to grapple with displaying apps written for the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen on its tablet's 9.7-inch display.
In that case, Apple created one set of development requirements for an iPhone-iPod app, another set of requirements for a pure iPad build, and a third set for a "universal build" that could be scaled to all the devices.
"Apple could introduce another set of standards for this device type, or they could stretch their universal build proposition," explained Craig Palli, vice president for client services & business development for Fiksu, a consulting firm for app developers.
"Either way," he continued, "these aren't big stretches for app developers."
Freedom From Pixels
Palli sees a bigger iPhone filling in a niche for Apple.
"The iPhone offers some really nice consumption-based opportunities, while the iPad offers some really great richer-engagement opportunities," he observed.
"By increasing the size of the iPhone, it almost creates an opportunity to blend the best of both form factors -- a little more portability than an iPad, but richer than an iPhone in richer engagement experiences," he maintained . "That's a nice win for the app developer."
A development that will reduce the impact of screen size changes on developers of devices running iOS is Apple's movement to resolution-independent designs, noted Yankee Group Research Director Carl Howe.
"They're getting people not to think in pixels but in inches," he said. "If things are specified in inches, any resolution necessary can be used to render that."
Old Apps in Letterboxes
If Apple increases the size of the iPhone's display, Howe thinks it will increase the height of the screen but not its width. That way, legacy apps could run in a "letterbox" on the new device without any changes being made to the older app. "They'll look fine," he opined. "They'll look great."
"That's the approach I expect Apple to take," he said.
"I think with iOS 6, Apple will go to resolution independent because we're going to see a lot more types of screens in the future," he added, "and it will provide a legacy accommodation that will make the old apps run fine without any changes."
While Apple's competitors have embraced larger screens, it has resisted them. Why change now?
More Than Ear Candy
Steve Jobs believed that the phone had to fit in a hand comfortably and with a 3.5-inch screen, it did that, explained Michael Morgan, a mobile devices analyst with ABI Research. However, things have changed since the iPhone was introduced.
"Smartphones are becoming less a device that you use with your ear and much more a device you use with your eyes," he said.
"Where before you wanted high quality sound," he continued, "now you want more visual real estate to extract more value from your data."
Moreover, LTE is important to the iPhone's future, he noted. "LTE's extra strengths is about bringing in video," he said. "It only makes sense for Apple to kick the iPhone's display up a notch to let that video data to be consumed in a more comfortable way."