Shrinking iPhone, Shrinking Interface: The Issues
When Apple created the iPhone’s touchscreen interface, it also created a fundamental “going forward” challenge—how can the size-obsessed company keep making its devices smaller without over-compromising their usability? Steve Jobs, after all, dismissed with a “yuck!” the idea of using a stylus with the touchscreen, noting that a finger was the best possible way to interact with the device. Apart from shrinking users’ fingers, how can the screens of future iPhones and touch-based iPods fall in size without making the icons and other buttons too small to use?
Today, a Taiwanese newspaper claimed that the new iPhone’s screen will be reduced from its current 3.5” diagonal size down to 2.8”—a compromise which will necessarily require Apple to do one of three things: shrink the current interface down, crop it, or shrink it and crop it. If this measurement is accurate, to merely shrink the interface would require a higher pixel density screen, and the user’s indulgence for icons and keys that would lose around 20% of their current size. Cropping the current interface would eliminate some of the icons and keys, while a combination of cropping and shrinking could preserve more icons and keys than the pure crop, making them more than 80% of their present size, but you’d still have to lose some size and white space to make it work.
The picture above shows how icons currently fit on an iPhone screen, and how they’d fit on a purely cropped or a purely shrunk screen. In the crop scenario, the 20-icon main menu becomes capable of holding 12 at full size; the shrunken version preserves all 20 but shrinks them down to around 0.3” per icon in width.
The next picture shows what might happen on a 2.8” screen with the current vertical orientation keyboard. Apple’s already too-small keys would drop to baby finger-sized 0.2” by 0.1” keylets. Those who already find the iPhone’s keyboard marginal would find the miniaturized one useless unless new predictive software was developed to make it smarter at guessing the words they were trying to type.
Another option would be to restrict the keyboard to operating solely in widescreen mode. Here, the keys would remain substantially usable even on a 2.8” screen, falling to roughly 0.2” by 0.2” in size. While not as large as the .25” by .25” keys of the larger iPhone, these would have twice the surface area of the vertical keys. Does any of this really matter? Yes. What Apple does with successive iPhones’ interfaces is literally all-important. Should the screen size shrink at the same size pixel density increases, Apple’s applications—and third-party ones—will need to be updated to be sure text and buttons aren’t too small to be used by most people. Should Apple cut screen size and preserve pixel density as-is, such that you might get 12 icons on the main screen rather than 20, third-party applications may need to be developed in separate versions for old and new screen types. (Apple might even fully redesign the interface for its “mini” or “nano” devices, or lose the current iPhone operating system altogether, but the iPhone SDK wouldn’t be much good then, would it?) Of course, similar issues will also crop up if the mobile OS X (aka iPhone/iPod touch) platform winds up on larger-screened devices, as screen real estate will increase while pixel density either goes down, stays the same, or goes up; they’ll also happen if Apple goes with a higher-density, miniature 720x480 display… all of this assumes, of course, that it doesn’t just decouple the touch interface from the display in some way, such as adding a slide-out or plug-in keyboard. What do you think will happen? Will Apple preserve the current iPhone interface as-is for the entire next round of iPhone and iPod touch devices, or are smaller screens, icons, or keys the likely near-term future of the family? We’re anxious to see your comments below.
If you have a comment, news tip, advertising inquiry, or coverage request, a question about iPods or accessories, or if you sell or market products, read iLounge's Comments + Questions policies before posting, and fully identify yourself if you do. We will delete comments containing advertising, astroturfing, trolling, personal attacks, offensive language, or other objectionable content, then ban and/or publicly identify violators. Wondering why we're talking about something other than iPods? Check the Archives: Backstage has been here and kicking it since 2004.
- Apple offering hands-on demos of Super Mario Run in stores
- Report: Apple pursuing studio agreements for early movie rentals
- Apple releases seventh beta of iOS 10.2 to developers
- Apple makes its picks for best iPhone, iPad and Apple TV apps of 2016
- Apple acknowledges Apple Music now includes ‘all the benefits of iTunes Match’
- Apple Music tops 20 million subscribers
- Apple blames ‘external factors’ for iPhone fires in China
- Rumor: 2017 iPhones won’t include glass chassis or wireless charging; will add red color
- Top Apple supplier Foxconn planning U.S. investment
- Apple enables Single Sign-On across all iOS 10 and tvOS 10 devices
- Elgato Eve Light Switch
- iHome iPLWBT5 Docking Clock Radio for iPhone and Apple Watch
- Brydge 12.9 iPad Pro Keyboard
- Sen.se GuardPeanut
- iHome iZBT10 Zenergy Bedside Sleep Therapy Speaker
- Twelve South HiRise Duet for Apple Watch and iPhone
- IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitor
- JBL Under Armour Sport Wireless Heart Rate Headphones
- Edifier e235 Luna E Speaker System
- Clamcase ClamCase+ for 9.7” iPad Pro
- Top Five: The Best Products for Building a Smart Home with HomeKit
- Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of watchOS 3
- Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of tvOS 10
- Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 10
- Inside the betas: iOS 10 Photos gets Advanced Computer Vision
- Inside the betas: iOS 10 Music app delivers ‘clarity and simplicity’
- Inside the betas: iOS 10 Maps gets a major redesign
- Inside the betas: iOS 10 shakes up the user experience
- Inside the betas: watchOS 3 promises a real speed boost
- Inside the betas: A sneak peek at what’s new in tvOS 10