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

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
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.

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. 

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. 

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.

Related phones

iPhone 5
  • Display 4.0" 640 x 1136 pixels
  • Camera 8 MP / 1.2 MP front
  • Processor Apple A6, Dual-core, 1300 MHz
  • Storage 64 GB
  • Battery 1440 mAh(8h 3G talk time)



1. Captain_Doug

Posts: 1037; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

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

30. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 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.

31. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 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.

41. whysoserious

Posts: 318; Member since: Jul 20, 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!!!

44. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 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.

46. whysoserious

Posts: 318; Member since: Jul 20, 2012

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

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.

58. toplinetony

Posts: 2; Member since: Oct 30, 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.

2. Pings

Posts: 304; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

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

4. justaphone

Posts: 6; Member since: Aug 19, 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 ;)

5. PhoneArenaUser

Posts: 5498; Member since: Aug 05, 2011

"A lot of anger in this article ;)" But reasonable.

6. rusticguy

Posts: 2828; Member since: Aug 11, 2012

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

14. lasp24

Posts: 3; Member since: Sep 21, 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.

22. tedkord

Posts: 17307; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

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

39. cso26

Posts: 10; Member since: Aug 01, 2012

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

53. noim1

Posts: 297; Member since: May 15, 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...

54. bhsolace

Posts: 5; Member since: Aug 12, 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.

56. baustin4

Posts: 1; Member since: Sep 26, 2012

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

7. timtimity

Posts: 196; Member since: Aug 13, 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.

8. PhoneArenaUser

Posts: 5498; Member since: Aug 05, 2011

Did you pre ordered or maybe already bought iPhone 5 ?

9. timtimity

Posts: 196; Member since: Aug 13, 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.

10. timtimity

Posts: 196; Member since: Aug 13, 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!!!

11. PhoneArenaUser

Posts: 5498; Member since: Aug 05, 2011

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

25. PapaSmurf

Posts: 10457; Member since: May 14, 2012

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

52. TalkingTechy

Posts: 97; Member since: Dec 05, 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: http://tinyurl.com/8gklonl Read on and decide for yourself which pros and cons weigh more for you.

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...

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 :(

26. PapaSmurf

Posts: 10457; Member since: May 14, 2012

Lol Wendy you're so funny.

45. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 2010

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

48. wendygarett unregistered

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

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

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