In the current issue of MacUser magazine is a two-page spread of developer feedback to the new iPhone/iPod touch screen size, which shifted from the original’s 3:2 to a 16:9 ratio. Within, veteran developer John Pickford said something particularly interesting:
We’ll certainly take the new shape into account on future games, and the fact there are now three shapes to support means we’ll most likely go for an approach that doesn’t depend too heavily on screen shape.
One of the big things about iOS when it first arrived was that the device became the app. Because of the single screen size, you had developers, for better or worse, crafting experiences finely honed for the iPhone’s screen size. As the iPad arrived, developers split into those who continued to craft specifically for both screen ratios and those who took a more flexible approach, akin to responsive web design. In the case of the Pickfords and their game Magnetic Billiards:
We support two screen shapes (iPhone up to 4S and iPad). The entire backdrop is a single bitmap and we even have different levels on iPad to make good use of the extra resolution and different screen shape. Properly supporting to the new long screen would be a lot of work if we were to take the same approach and redesign all the levels to account for the new shape. We haven’t decided what to do yet, but it’s probably not going to be cost effective to make that change.
Today, PC Advisor and other publications are showcasing the iPad mini. Despite my protestations in the past, even I have to admit this device is almost certainly on the way (although this photo could easily enough be yet another clever fake). What’s not known is what screen such a device would have: 4:3, like the iPad; 16:9, like the new iPhone and iPod touch; something entirely different. Even scaling from an existing ratio would make some apps work better or worse, because interface components would be bigger or smaller, depending on whether the app scaled up from the iPhone or down from the iPad, respectively.
All this is a very long way of saying that we’re going to see a big change in a certain type of iOS app—the one designed for the device. Pickford summed it up by stating his approach would no longer depend heavily on screen shape, and I’ve heard similar from other developers, both of apps and games (although especially the latter). In a sense, this could be a good thing—freeing up iOS from the constraints of specific screen shapes opens up developers to whatever Apple throws at them next and should also make apps simpler to port to competing platforms. But it also impacts heavily on those tightly crafted experiences that were designed just for your iPad or just for your iPhone. Having all the action take place only in the very centre of a screen, because a developer cannot guarantee what device you’re using, or, worse, carving out a viewport and surrounding it with a border, could cheapen iOS games and apps in a big way.
Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but pre-iPhone 5, indies were already feeling the pinch. With that device and perhaps a new, smaller iPad to contend with, the shift towards more fluid and less device-specific apps seems inevitable.
Further reading: Standards guru and web designer Jeffrey Zeldman responds in Will the last digital canvas please turn out the lights?