x PhoneArena is hiring! Reviewer in the USA
  • Hidden picShow menu
  • Home
  • News
  • iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers

iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers

iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers
Apple has always prided itself on design. That's why every year, we get to hear in very minute detail what goes into the process of making the iPhone look the way it does. Unfortunately, Apple hasn't been so exacting when it comes to iOS design, and it shows with the iPhone 5's letterboxed apps. If you're picking up an iPhone 5 today, you'll no doubt take a moment to admire the craftsmanship that went into building the hardware. For better or worse, it will feel like an iPhone in your hand, which some of you may like, and some may think is still a bit small. It may not look all that different from the iPhone 4S, but it is still a well designed phone. Then, you'll boot it up and find the same grid of icons that you've grown to accept from the iOS UI. 

It's really no surprise that Jony Ive, the lead hardware designer at Apple, is a pretty commonly known name, but the lead software designer for iOS? Even a Google search for any combination of "lead", "software", "iOS", "UI", and "designer" doesn't come up with a name for an actual Apple employee. On the other side, can anyone name the lead hardware designers for Samsung, HTC, or Motorola? How about the lead Android designer? That's right, Matias Duarte. And, right there we see the difference in design philosophy. 

Apple's design aims

Apple has always been a hardware first company. Sure, it spends time creating the "integrated" or "closed" system (you can choose your own adjective based on your own bias), but the Apple software is always secondary. It's a big reason why the iPhone didn't really become a cultural phenomenon until the iPhone 3G, iOS 2, and the introduction of the App Store. Apple takes pride in its hardware design, Google is a software first company.

iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers

The prevailing narrative tends to be that iOS is easy to develop for, and Android is difficult. But, in reality, it's just different. One isn't inherently more difficult than the other, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses. What is most often cited as a strength with Apple is that there is a limited amount of hardware that you need to worry about (although it is nowhere near as limited as it used to be.) Essentially, as a developer working for iOS 6, you need to worry about the iPhone 3Gs (3.5" 480x320 display), the iPhone 4/4S (3.5" 960x640 display), the iPhone 5 (4" 1136x640 display), the iPad 2 (9.7" 1024x768 display), and the new iPad (9.7" 2048x1536 display). That's not too hard, right? It's only 5 different displays to worry about. The trouble is that Apple not only doesn't really help you out much, it pushes the onus onto developers rather than create better tools itself. 

The awful letterbox

Some may say that it's a small thing, but it is one that grated on our nerves while spending some hands-on time with the iPhone 5. If an app hasn't been updated for the iPhone 5, it will show with black letterbox bars on either side to fill up the extra space on the larger screen. It's a far less annoying way to display an app than the small window you'll get if you run an iPhone only app on an iPad, but the two are related in a key way: they are both in Apple's control. 

iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers
Apple will have you believe that both the letterbox and the tiny app syndrome are wholly the fault of developers who either haven't updated apps, or haven't made an iPad-specific version of an app, but that's not true. Apple shares in the responsibility, because the iOS developer tools leave the work in the hands of developers. There is no easy way to make an app once and have it run on all of the different iOS devices, you know, like Android does.

We've talked about it before, but the big push with Android in order to accommodate the wide range of display sizes and resolutions is with responsive design. What is responsive design you may ask? It boils down to "design once, run everywhere". For a functional example, in a desktop browser, go to your Gmail, or do an image search on Google, then resize the browser window. Assuming you're using a browser that's competent (read: not IE) you'll notice that the content of the page rearranges automatically to fit the browser window size. That's responsive design. 

That's why an app can be written once for Android and run on any size device. Responsive design does have the downside of leaving large amounts of blank space if the app isn't designed properly, but a few apps with extra white space seems like a good trade-off for never seeing tiny-app syndrome. If Apple employed even a little bit of responsive design, Google's new YouTube app, and others like it which are scrollable lists, would never see the letterboxing on iPhone 5, because the screen would fill automatically. The other big benefit is that Apple can take more risks with hardware design, and know that the software will keep pace. 

Apple's hardware needs responsive design

It may seem an odd thought at first because Apple only changes its hardware design every two years, but that's an Apple perspective. How about this perspective: Every two years, when Apple does change the design of a device, there are over 700,000 apps in the iTunes App Store (not all are iPhone apps, but it's close enough), and when Apple changes one device, developers have to scramble. This year, Apple gave developers one week between the iPhone 5 announcement and iOS 6 GM release, and the launch of the iPhone 5. Does anyone really expect every app to get an update through in that week, especially with Apple's review process for the App Store? Not likely. On the other side of things, there are new Android devices released basically every week, and for the most part, apps don't need updates to work with those new handsets. 

iPhone 5's terrible letterbox show Apple's apathy for developers
Since Apple has such a long time between hardware updates, that means Apple could have the benefits of responsive design, as well as the benefits of hardware consistency. Instead, the company's answer is to leave all of the work on the developers, and use the black bars of shame to push developers into updating apps. 

If Apple didn't have to worry about the thousands of developers putting in the work to update apps for compatibility, isn't it reasonable to think that Apple might be a bit more bold with the hardware design of the iPhone? Samsung has the freedom to release devices with 4" screens, 4.6", 4.8", 5.3", 7", 8.9", and 10" (just to name a few), and aside from a few straggler apps, the responsive design in Android takes care of the rest. 

Everyone is expecting Apple to release an iPad Mini by the end of the year, which would come in at just under 8". And, you know what will happen when that device is announced? Once again, all the developers that had to scramble to update apps to work on the iPhone 5 will need to scramble to update apps for the iPad Mini. It won't be nearly as many developers, or as many apps, but it will still be a lot of work for a lot of people, and Apple isn't making it any easier.

  • Options

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:21 40

1. Captain_Doug (Posts: 997; Member since: 10 Feb 2012)

What a joke. I'd take terrible tablet apps over letter boxing any day.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 23:26 3

30. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Sad to say, this is not Steve's program any more. He would have put the squeeze on a group of developers to deliver native resolution apps for the iP5 on release date. The letter-boxing with a dearth of apps that provide native resolution is just chickens*t.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 23:37 2

31. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

At the risk of getting banned, there is an op-ed on nytimes that talks to Apple's decline (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/22/opinion/nocera-has-apple-peaked.html?hp ). The Cliff-Notes version is that once a company gets so successful that its business model is focused on protecting the franchise that it was able to build, that is the beginning of the end. The company may remain profitable (MS), but it is no longer the innovator that got it to its position of profitability.

The perfidious lash-up that is the Apple Maps application and this stupid letter-boxing is proof of Apple passing its zenith.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 06:08 6

41. whysoserious (Posts: 318; Member since: 20 Jul 2012)

I've used four android phones for the last 3 years. WTF is a letterbox? Is that a new innovation Apple has come up with for the new iPhone 5?

iFans, thumbs up if you're excited with this new innovation! Woohoo!!!

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 12:46 1

44. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Letterboxing is a set of black panels on the right and left sides of the display that indicate un-filled space from the image being projected on the display (as occurs when a 4:3 image is projected on a 16:9 display). If you look at the picture of the iP4 next to the iP5 in the article, you can see two black 'bars' on the iP5. The white iP5 shows the bars more than the black one.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 16:25 2

46. whysoserious (Posts: 318; Member since: 20 Jul 2012)

Sorry bro, forgot to wear my sarcasm mask when I posted that. Lol!

posted on 29 Sep 2012, 00:16 1

57. Hemlocke (unregistered)

Scaled apps are garbage, especially on a tablet. Wonder why Android tablets don't sell? "Design once, run everywhere" is a poor compromise, and if you are paying $500 for a tablet, scaled apps just suck.

posted on 12 Oct 2012, 10:23

58. toplinetony (Posts: 2; Member since: 30 Oct 2011)

That statement perfectly encapsulates what responsive design is meant to solve. Except you got it the wrong way round; Android promotes it, Apple and iOS do not.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:28 1

2. Pings (Posts: 303; Member since: 19 Dec 2008)

Hmmm wonder how many things at Apple are an after thought.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:33

4. justaphone (Posts: 6; Member since: 19 Aug 2012)

I guess there's not much more that could have been done when developers never had to worry about screen size on an iOS device before this release... A lot of anger in this article ;)

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:39 3

5. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

"A lot of anger in this article ;)"

But reasonable.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:43 3

6. rusticguy (Posts: 2828; Member since: 11 Aug 2012)

Apple is not a Software company so why blame them :)

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:19 15

14. lasp24 (Posts: 3; Member since: 21 Sep 2012)

because they were the ones that decided only to stretch the screen height-wise and so all of the apps that they had previously will now have black bars. It is Apple's fault, not the developers of the apps.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 21:36 8

22. tedkord (Posts: 11659; Member since: 17 Jun 2009)

Apple absolutely is a software company. What do you think iOS, OSX, their new maps app, etc...are?

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 02:56

39. cso26 (Posts: 10; Member since: 01 Aug 2012)

oh .now i come to know that ios is hardware.lol.

posted on 24 Sep 2012, 11:28

53. noim1 (Posts: 297; Member since: 15 May 2012)

Well ofcourse a.pl is a software company.. They don't make hardware they only take the best from the best hardware manufacturers in the world like Samsung, Sony, sharp etc.. They cherry pick the best things and put them all together and put inn their dumb iOS software.& wala dumb ppl with too much money here is your iPhone.... And they call it innovation. Yesi admit they once used to innovate but now they just seem derailed...

posted on 24 Sep 2012, 14:15

54. bhsolace (Posts: 5; Member since: 12 Aug 2011)

they dont take hardware from other manufacturers, and although they havent innovated much in a physical sense, the software has been approved. to answer your question, no im not an apple fanboy, i appreciate technological advancements. theres no such thing as an apple fanboy, theres good things about apple and there are some bad things. Myself, being competent, can appreciate apple for its innovation and comment on its mistakes. But i can see your one of those ignorant hipsters that think, because they're successful i should hate on them. you think your cool because you stand out from "the crowd" that likes apple, but your really aren't. you're a fool, if android had been on top, and it was apple trying to get noticed i bet you a million dollars you would back apple 100%.
***Your opinions do not matter at all, please stay out of future comment sections, thanks.

posted on 26 Sep 2012, 12:25

56. baustin4 (Posts: 1; Member since: 26 Sep 2012)

1: Competent? Ex. See "software has been approved" try improved.
2: No such thing as an apple fanboy? No comment.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:45 7

7. timtimity (Posts: 196; Member since: 13 Aug 2012)

Why hasn't the keyboard been stretched to fit the entire width of the screen when in landscape mode? Surely one of the biggest benefits of a larger screen is more room to type. One of the reasons why I want a phone with a bigger screen is that I'm constantly mistyping because of the small keyboard on my iPhone.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:49

8. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

Did you pre ordered or maybe already bought iPhone 5 ?

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:52 13

9. timtimity (Posts: 196; Member since: 13 Aug 2012)

No, I was looking at my brother's iPhone 5 today. I'm moving to Android within the next few weeks. I'm not anti-Apple or pro-Android. I've had iPhones since the 3GS and I fancy a change. Also, in my opinion, I think I can get a much better phone for a lot less than the cost of the new iPhone.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:58 2

10. timtimity (Posts: 196; Member since: 13 Aug 2012)

Also, because I've been with my carrier for so long I've negotiated a really good tariff so I'm going to buy a phone sim-free as I want to keep the tariff I'm on. I've worked out that for the total amount of money it is costing my brother for a 2 year contract with his new iPhone (including his tariff, the handset cost and insurance) I could buy an Xperia T, One X or S3 sim free and use it for 7-8 years before it came to the same amount!!!

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 18:59 3

11. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

Then it is good that you have noticed that keyboard hasn't been stretched to fit the entire width of the screen. :)

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 22:01 4

25. PapaSmurf (Posts: 10456; Member since: 14 May 2012)

Welcome to Android. Here, you have total customization to your liking. Enjoy your phone!

posted on 23 Sep 2012, 20:37

52. TalkingTechy (Posts: 97; Member since: 05 Dec 2011)

I had the iPhone 4...I fancied a change and went to the Samsung Galaxy S3...I lived with it for 1 month and determined the following:


Read on and decide for yourself which pros and cons weigh more for you.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:02 9

12. wendygarett (unregistered)

Thank god I haven't bought the iPhone 5 yet...
What a shame Apple... Most of the apps still stuck at th 3.5inches...

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:06 4

13. wendygarett (unregistered)

Nice article Michael, especially that picture 'i do not like the shame of cones'
I really need to wear one in front of the fandroid :(
Really really as shame :(

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 22:02 1

26. PapaSmurf (Posts: 10456; Member since: 14 May 2012)

Lol Wendy you're so funny.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 16:00 1

45. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Didn't you want to have the coolest iPhone yet?

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 19:02

48. wendygarett (unregistered)

I'll wait for the fix 1st...

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:24 5

15. lasp24 (Posts: 3; Member since: 21 Sep 2012)

Nokia Lumia 920 doesn't have black bars on the sides of apps, and working maps, and NFC and wireless charging, and Optical Image stabilization, and an OS that is actually customizable. After much though, I am getting the Nokia

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:40

16. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

I also like Nokia Lumia 920, but Windows Phone 8 is stopping me from buying it so, I say maybe in the future when there will be Windows Phone 9. :)

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:46 2

18. 12Danny123 (Posts: 87; Member since: 18 Aug 2012)

Well. There's nothing wrong with Wp8 it's just like IOS but more free and much less restricted than IOS 6. and it's definitely not a horrible upgrade like IOS 6. which turned out awful. While I think an Android user will get used to Wp8 for the specs. But Honestly I think Wp8 is a very good alternative to Android and IOS

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:53

20. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

I agree with you 100%, but I still think that WP need a bit more time. I will refrain maybe till WP 9. :)

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:04

34. haseebzahid (Posts: 1853; Member since: 22 Feb 2012)

yes WP8 is a total rework of WP seriers from very bottom line its not a patch its new OS

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:40

17. infernal88 (Posts: 113; Member since: 08 Jun 2012)

reading this "Assuming you're using a browser that's competent (read: not IE)" ... made me LOL XD

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:49 2

19. 12Danny123 (Posts: 87; Member since: 18 Aug 2012)

I Think tones of people will not like the black bars. and I never see people updating their apps at all. So I think people will think it's stuck like that forever. It will leave a bad taste in their mouth and the apps and especially IOS 6

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 19:59 2

21. TheRetroReplay (Posts: 254; Member since: 20 Mar 2012)

That's pretty much Apple to a T, adopt/invent/steal new standards and abandon the old ones and screw everyone else because it's their problem, not Apple's.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 21:40 2

23. Savage (unregistered)

Apple should use a PPI calculator or something similar for their devices. Fragmentation in iOS is just getting started.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 21:57

24. stealthd (unregistered)

How are they terrible exactly? Apps function exactly as they do on a 4/4S. Same size same everything. How is that terrible?

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 22:25 1

27. johnbftl (Posts: 281; Member since: 09 Jun 2012)

It's terrible because Apple is selling millions of customers on the premise of having half an inch more real estate to use in apps and such when in reality, it will be blacked out. If you had a 52" tv and upgraded to a 70" only to find out that extra 9" on each side was blacked out, I'm pretty sure you'd be pissed off.

posted on 21 Sep 2012, 22:53 4

28. fanboy1974 (Posts: 1345; Member since: 12 Nov 2011)

The best article I've ever read on this site. Finally someone not kissing Apple ass. I'm sick and tired of people saying that Android is nothing but a fragmented mess. Just look at what Apple is doing/not doing. Apple had this prime opportunity to redo the entire freaking operating system and come out with a phone that was totally different. Instead we get some $hitty maps app and upgrades that Android users have been using for close to 2 years.


posted on 21 Sep 2012, 22:59

29. mrllano (Posts: 91; Member since: 20 Aug 2012)

It's difficult to be a known both in hardware and software.. That is why up to this point, we still have a good competition. Apple, Google, Microsoft, even Blackberry is known for a specific part, but not on both aspect.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 00:33

32. pikapowerize (banned) (Posts: 1869; Member since: 03 May 2012)

since when the iPad's size is 10.1? its true.. hate that letterbox.... i think they should be unified with 16:9 ratio

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:03

33. haseebzahid (Posts: 1853; Member since: 22 Feb 2012)

new licence for the updated tools pay up Mr.Developers so u can adjust this thing easier :P

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:08

35. haseebzahid (Posts: 1853; Member since: 22 Feb 2012)

that makes APP count for IOS6 from 750k down to like 300k apps being 100% fit in screen hahaha head shot Apple

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:10

36. AppleConspiracy (Posts: 637; Member since: 18 Oct 2011)

This is the problem I was talking abouth five months ago. I couldn't think of the way Apple will resize iPhone's screen without sacrificing lots of things.

When I have read first wave of rumors that say there will be 176 pixels taller screen, I thought they will use those pixels for virtual Home button and make iPhone butonnless for new generation of apps. Because 176 pixels in 326 ppi is exactly the space needed for Home button that is physical on all previous iPhones.

I knew there will be problems if they didn't do that. And there is no alternative except keeping the same screen, which is not possible for Apple anymore considering the pressure for the market. They did perhaps the biggest mistake in iPhone era.

And iPad Mini... I doubt there will be iPad Mini. But, since they already did one big mistake, why don't they make another? However, if Mini should have 1024x768 resolution, there will be no problems for developers.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:44

37. plyfulgentleman (Posts: 43; Member since: 17 Jul 2008)

Oh me oh my! How the mighty havd fallen! Fragmentation on iPhone 5, say it aint so. God rest his soul, but if Jobs can only see this now. Certainly the cyclical theory is in effect once on top inky way to go is dowm. Just like apple to put the blame on developers on the letterboxing. One can only imagine whats in store for 5s? NFC perhaps? Safari on Ios able to link search on mac? Sounds like someone is playing catch up here...honestly folks not to sound like a phanboy but wake up. All these features were on gingerbread...but hey some people gotta learn the hardway...deuces everyone

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 01:51

38. princysharma1990 (Posts: 1; Member since: 22 Sep 2012)

I am using iPhone 3GS and was really looking forward to iPhone 5 but its release is very dis-appointing. Its cost is not worth its services. :(
Now, I think I have to switch to Samsung or LG android phones.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 04:21

40. RyFry (Posts: 6; Member since: 16 Sep 2012)

Wait.... Who the hell could name a lead designer for any company. Bet you close to 98% of people couldn't even named apple's lead designer.

Sorry but Jony Ive is not a common know name. Maybe Tim Cook, but not Jony Ive.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 10:19

42. AppleConspiracy (Posts: 637; Member since: 18 Oct 2011)

Yes it's a common known name.

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 12:43 1

43. vicorama (Posts: 8; Member since: 18 Oct 2011)

This letterbox is a new Apple patent, no?

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 18:27

47. paulyyd (Posts: 338; Member since: 08 Jan 2011)

lol I don't see how letter boxing is a big deal, its not like developers can't update their apps to fit the new screen size. Yet again another issue blow out of proportion. Doesn't matter, this phone is selling like hot cakes. The consumers don't seem to mind

posted on 22 Sep 2012, 20:32

49. johnbftl (Posts: 281; Member since: 09 Jun 2012)

It's not a matter of JUST updating the app. You didn't even read the article did you? Developers essentially have to rewrite the app for the new screen size. Then there becomes the issue of the applications being in the app store multiple times. If you don't pay attention, and most people don't (not saying Apple users, people in general) you're probably not going to notice if it says for use with 3.5", 4.0", iPad, or iPad mini. Meanwhile Apple will just boast that they now have 2.8 million apps instead of 700,000.

posted on 23 Sep 2012, 06:56

50. Windsponge (Posts: 92; Member since: 01 Nov 2009)

I am using 4s now my next will be note2 or new lg coming out. Who cares what phone you or I buy. People just tell features leave personal feeling at home.

posted on 23 Sep 2012, 15:05

51. Astri (Posts: 3; Member since: 23 Sep 2012)

I disagree with is article.
When apple doubled the resolution from 3gs to ip4 the only thing developers had to do was to add high resoloution images to their project. Same naming with a @2x at the end. Same case with ipad and new ipad.

View controllers has auto resize properties so i guess all you have to do, is to add support for iphone 5, recompile and you are done.

The only difficult case might be the games and the custum UI apps. But for android also those cases are handled by the devs.

Im android user by the way but developing for iOS is much more fun

posted on 24 Sep 2012, 16:17

55. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2703; Member since: 26 May 2011)

This isn't as simple as making high res images for the art in your app. This is rebuilding all of the art for your app with a different aspect ratio. For some apps, that may not be a problem, but for a lot of apps, including most games, that can be quite a big task.

posted on 26 Apr 2013, 00:21

59. burkminipup (Posts: 1; Member since: 26 Apr 2013)

Yeah, I hate letterboxes. *opens widescreen video on GS3*, oh wait, back to iPhone 5.. Pretty sure the selling point for many of the android devices is that they are better for video. Seeing as I keep my iPhone on portait lock for anything other than videos, I'm glad it's not wider. I agree that apps that are basically just scrolling in the middle, could easily be automatically adjusted, but that puts some more pressure on the phone's processor, and lazy app developers wouldn't bother optimizing.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

Want to comment? Please login or register.

Latest stories