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Why smaller apps are centered on the iPhone 5 screen

The iPhone 5 sports a taller screen than any iPhone that came before it. Now developers are scrambling to ready their apps for that new screen. Many were unable to do so before the iPhone's launch last Friday--and some perhaps never will. Those apps that haven't been redesigned to accommodate the iPhone 5's taller screen will still run; they'll simply run letterboxed: The app will appear centered on your iPhone's screen in portrait mode, with black bars above and below it.

That boxed implementation was Apple's choice. Certainly, the company could have done things differently--it could, for example, have opted to stretch unoptimized apps vertically or to algorithmically resize elements. But it strikes me that Apple's decision to center non-updated apps on the iPhone's screen was not made with the user's immediate interest in mind. Instead, Apple's decision is one that only benefits users in the long-term.

The problem

My concern before I ever held the iPhone 5 was that, by centering older apps on the screen, Apple would render my muscle memory mostly useless: The keyboard would appear too high, off the bottom edge of the screen. Topmost tap targets would similarly appear lower on the iPhone 5 than they would on an older device, relative to the top of each device's screen.

Early reviews of the iPhone 5 confirmed my fears. John Gruber at Daring Fireball wrote:

The letterbox mode for not-yet-updated-for-the-new-display apps kind of sucks. It's not so much that it looks bad (my review unit is white; I'd wager money that the letterboxing is almost hard to notice visually on the black ones), but that it really throws me off while typing. My muscle memory knows where the keys are supposed to be relative to the bottom of the phone; letterboxing moves them all a row higher.

Jim Dalrymple at The Loop had a similar complaint:

If there is one problem I had with the iPhone, it would be with the apps that weren't designed for the larger screen. We're used to going to the bottom of the screen for the [tab bar], but because the older apps are centered on the screen, the menus aren't there. I tap a few times before I realize I have to move my thumb up a little bit.

And there's a companion issue: Savvy iOS device owners know that a tap on the status bar will scroll you up to the top of most apps you use. Gruber confirmed via Twitter that when running boxed apps on the iPhone 5, you need to tap on the "lower than normal" status bar, not the "dead zone" (his term) of the true top of the screen.

The fair question to ask now is: So what? Developers will update their apps, and this whole issue will be moot. It's a reasonable point, and it's likely true for most apps. But there are certain apps I keep in semi-active rotation on my iPhone--some games, some utilities, and the like--that aren't updated frequently. It could be months until some of them get updated for the new iPhone, and I imagine I'll either have to give up on some of them or else learn to live with the boxed limitation.

And yet, I'm convinced that it didn't need to be this way. This screen size solution was an intentional, reasonable, strategic move on Apple's part--even though it will annoy users like me, at least in the near term.

What Apple could have done--and why it didn't

To me, the smarter solution would have been for Apple to position unoptimized apps not in the center, but rather flush to the bottom. (I'm no artist, but you can see my rendering of what that might look like in the image atop this article. The actual approach is on the left; my alternative is on the right.)

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to this approach. On the plus side, every element of the app would remain the same distance from the bottom of the phone as it was on previous iPhones: The tab bar would remain on the bottom, and the top of the app would remain precisely the length your thumb learned to stretch over your past years of iPhone usage. Scrolling through a lengthier email or article, you could run your thumb right on the bottom edge of the screen as you always did before, with no fear of hitting Gruber's "dead zone."

One big downside to this approach: it wouldn't work well at all in landscape mode, where I think the centered, letterboxed solution makes more sense. It would be odd to see the screen jump as you rotated your device.

But I bet Apple's bigger concern would be the gaping black space that would be left at the top of the screen if apps stayed anchored to the bottom. Personally, I think we'd get used to that unused black space pretty quickly--but that doesn't mesh very well with Apple's desire for the market to embrace the larger screen. If using older apps felt okay with that big black gap at the top, some developers would likely feel considerably less motivated to update their apps; Apple would prefer that developers keep up with its hardware changes.

Even worse, though, that extra black space at the top immediately makes me think of one thing--and I bet Apple expected developers to hear the same siren call: It looks like it could fit an iPhone-sized banner ad awfully nicely.

Clearly, Apple's expectation for the iPhone 5's taller screen isn't that developers should keep their apps functionally the same size and simply toss an ad up top to fill out the additional space. (That said, don't be surprised if some developers do just that.) But by avoiding the potentially easier-on-the-thumbs approach of positioning smaller apps flush with the bottom of the screen instead of centering them, Apple accomplishes two important goals: It has prevented developers from taking the "eh, good enough" approach. And it likely pushes developers to think of the new iPhone's screen as more than just extra ad space, too.


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