Shrinking iPhone, Shrinking Interface: The Issues | iLounge Backstage

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Shrinking iPhone, Shrinking Interface: The Issues

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Tuesday, April 29, 2008
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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?

pic 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.

pic 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.

pic 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.

pic 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.

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Comments

1

Although a dedicated slide out physical keyboard is what all the former (and current) Blackberry and Sidekick owners are clamoring for, I don’t see Apple offering either. That would be step backwards in my opinion and like Jobso would say “yick!” 

The best part of the current iPhone is how slick it looks and there are no moving parts/hinges/slides to break or get all gummed up with lint from your pocket or fingers.  I also don’t they’ll add tactile feedback like the LG Voyager has…that is just a chintzy feature that makes it feel inferior.  I would say the gross dimensions of the current iPhone are ideal but they could work on thinness…like getting it less than the iTouch and getting it lighter.  I realize that plastic would be lighter, but it also takes away from the sleekness of the current iPhone.

Just my two cents.

Posted by TosaDeac on April 29, 2008 at 1:05 PM (PDT)

2

Is this serious? They are shrinking the iPhone? This can’t lead to anything good. First is the control issue, then the fact that it would also become thicker so everything else doesn’t need to be shrunk and cost more. Shrinking the screen does a lot more than making touching things harder, it shrinks everything the iPhone can do. If this is true, I’m very disappointed in the route Apple took.

I used to joke about micro iPods when I got my Touch, ones that would snap if you held it too tightly. Now the iPhone will be lost in your pocket and fall through a drain. If they actually do this, I hope the Touch doesn’t also find a place in the land of Smurfs.

Posted by Colin on April 29, 2008 at 6:39 PM (PDT)

3

All this over a Taiwanese newspaper *claim*??  Is it really that slow of a news day on the iPhone front to go to this much effort over a rumor?

Posted by orphu on April 29, 2008 at 9:12 PM (PDT)

4

I was surprised how quickly I can type on my iPhone.  As others have said, “trust the software”.

Posted by Galley in Greenville, SC on April 30, 2008 at 5:44 AM (PDT)

5

Now really!!!!!!!  Why? or How? Would they or could they change the iPhone screen size.  It is an integral part of the iPhone.  A change would completely throw off the precarious balance of usability and comfort.  Apple is smart.  There is almost no way they could change the iPhone screen size. 

Apple for over a year has been hard at work developing interest and desire for the iPhone and it’s Apps.  A shift would unleash a firestorm of anger.

Posted by Ganush on May 1, 2008 at 1:18 PM (PDT)

6

Thinner = Good
Lighter = Good
Shrunk screen = Bad

Posted by TulsaGentleman on May 2, 2008 at 9:10 PM (PDT)

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