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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.

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