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 720×480 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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