17 Mar Not hosed (for now)

Apple’s iPhone software 3.0 event came and went without a mention or hint at new hardware. There have been a lot of rumors about a possible new iPhone, and a lot of these rumors assumed a potential connection between this new software for the iPhone and the new hardware, which could be unveiled around the time of WWDC this year.

I posed a question on Twitter earlier today, and since there’s (unsurprisingly) been no mention of it today, I wanted to get my thoughts down on this difficult issue Apple faces when it comes to the future of the iPhone platform. At some point in the future, iPhones and iPod touches will get a better screen, with a better resolution. A good example is the move of Apple’s flagship notebook, the Macbook Pro 17″, from a 1680 by 1050 pixel resolution screen, to a high-DPI (dots per inch) screen boasting an impressive 1920 by 1200 pixels. The screen remained the same size in inches; it just packed a lot more pixels in each inch of screen size.

This happens in the arena of mobile devices as well. Some modern cell phones feature screens with a massive resolution of 800 by 600 pixels; comparably, the iPhone offers a ‘meagre’ 480 by 320 pixels. In the future, Apple will change to a better (not necessarily ‘bigger’) screen, and developers of iPhone apps will face a huge issue: how do we scale the interface?

Ever since Mac software developers got introduced to new features in Mac OS X ‘Tiger’, the topic of resolution independence has been a hot one. It drills down to interfaces being able to scale depending on the pixel density of the display. Once we get advanced computer displays that may pack over 200 pixels together in one inch (versus the 100-120 of today), our old interfaces become nearly useless as every element of the interface becomes smaller. Cabel Sasser explained it well in the ‘Resawhosa Indewhatnow’ section of this blog post.

Fortunately, as I mentioned, Apple has been working on a solution to this (and not just Apple; Microsoft introduced its first resolution-independence features in Vista); since Leopard, the interface is already scalable, with most (but not all) interface elements now being composed not by images (‘bitmaps’), but so-called ‘recipes’ that describe a graphic’s shape, size, color, and more. The recipes scale effortlessly and infinitely: if you’d (hypothetically) like to have a screen that’s a few miles wide, the interface graphics won’t lose their design quality. Some applications, like Apple’s own Instruments and Panic’s Coda are already fully resolution independent, and we’re moving towards Snow Leopard, which probably brings true resolution independence by replacing all left over bitmaps in the interface with recipes.

We averted it on the desktop before it was too late; in fact, everyone was ahead of technology in making themselves ready for potential changes in displays. Unfortunately, now that we have 30 million devices out there with one screen resolution and a set of design standards that actively discourage being ready and flexible for potential fluctuations in screen resolution, we face a disaster; at some point Apple will tell developers that their apps will need complete redesigning to work on their shiny new device with its improved screen, and there will be a lot of confusion, anger, and ambiguity.

Applications will have to ‘deal’ with two different resolutions at the least; icons and other bitmap graphics will have to be redesigned for the higher pixel density screens. There will, no doubt, be applications that are not ready and look very bad on the new device, or perfectly good applications are not approved into the App Store because they are not ready yet.

We may keep pushing the date forward like a hot potato, but at some point Apple and developers will have to face up to the fact that there will be a lot of redesigning, re-thinking and adaptation required. Until that day, enjoy the simplicity of developing and designing for a simple, defined hardware specification. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when technology comes and slaps you in the face.

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14 Responses

  1. 1
    sebastiaan 

    You can get the high-res iPhone SMS icon in this post.

  2. So what’s the best way to safeguard from this eventuality in your opinion? Should we be resourcing our graphical assets in vector format? How significant is the leap from using raster resources to vector recipes? I’d love to see an article about how they are doing it currently on Mac OS X assuming that Apple would repurpose a lot of this knowledge for the mobile universe.

  3. Yeah, it’s a challenging issue i think. Although, i believe it’ll need to be addressed sooner rather than later. If the shrinking down of the new iPod Shuffle has anything to say, it’s that consumers demand smaller and smaller devices.

    The iPhone OS (or whatever they’re calling it these days), will have to support in my mind bigger & smaller screen density’s. It’s only a matter of time until Apple wants to release their iPhone Nano type device. My guess is it’s probably not that far off, or at the latest June 2010.

    We shall see.

  4. I’m curious though, if an application only uses Cocoa Touch widgets available in the iPhone OS, will they be covered when the OS gets updated? In other words, does this issue only affect those with custom graphics in their apps?

    Note that I’m not trivializing the issue, I’m just trying to figure out what kind of applications will be affected.

  5. 5
    Leonardo 

    It wasn’t a hardware event. Apple clearly said that it was a software event. The SDK event.

    This is the problem with rumors: hope and dissapointment.

  6. 6
    sebastiaan 

    You show a remarkable ability to miss the point, Leonardo.

    Kumaran: I would expect those to be unaffected, yes.

    Cameron: As mobile devices are limited in resources, doing recipe-based drawing would be a waste of battery life and CPU cycles. I prepare my own interfaces in a scalable format and export appropriate bitmap resources.

  7. 7
    sfmitch 

    I have been wondering the same thing.

    With all the non-stop chatter about iPhone, not much actually gets said. This seems like a really big issue.

    There is no question, as you state, that iPhones will eventually have higher resolution screens.

    I will be following this discussion – hopefully someone has a some insight.

  8. 8
    Jason Harwig 

    Applications using quartz to render the UI elements should be fine also as long as the screen size isn’t hard-coded (and easy to update, if it is.) Provides most of the speed of bitmap graphics with the resolution independence of vector. Requires more code though, and designers are often not great at graphics api’s.

  9. If you have the iPhone 3.0 SDK, look in the API diffs under Quartz Core for some interesting new classes :)

  10. 10
    Abel Petneki 

    I wonder when this “eventually” comes.
    The 17-inch MacBook Pro has seen increasing pixel density, but the 13 and 15-inch models aimed for more general use? Not so much.
    On the iPhone, Apple is using a 160 ppi display and this buys them a couple of years. It’s a lot sharper than laptop displays and right now there seems to be no real usability advantage in raising pixel density. Also, pushing more pixels around needs more hardware resources and Apple seems to be very resource conscious when it comes to iPhone.

  11. 11
    Chris 

    If the next screen doubles the resolution (to 960*640), scaling shouldn’t be too much of an issue if you use the standard UI control elements. It might not look as fine as before, but as long as the scaling is even numbered (e.g. not 1.5 = 720*480) no destructive interpolation is needed.

  12. 12
    Erik 

    Since iPhone applications consume the entire screen (and will presumably do so until some hypothetical future iPhone UI where more than one application is visible at a time), would it be possible for the iPhone OS to emulate older/smaller resolutions for applications that do not advertise that they are capable of taking advantage of newer/larger resolutions?

  13. 13
    Julian 

    well regarding the larger icons

    all apps submitted already have larger icons. If you download an app, you’ll notice itunes has a large 512(?) by 512 (?) version of the icon, while the app its self uses a 57 by 57 (that apple formats to 59 by 60) version. In this way the apps are already ready for a larger screen

    and i’ll bet that apps that mostly use apples menu and apples buttons and text are probably close to resolution independent already

    the biggest problem will probably be game

  1. [...] The iPhone’s screen is currently 320×480, but one day it will increase in resolution. This brings about the question of what will happen to current apps when the screen res goes up?┬áThe Cocoia blog has a post on what they think will happen. [...]

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