Is iOS Fragmenting?

For developers, one of iOS’s benefits is that there are so few device models, a lineup that avoids the UI/UX fragmentation that plagues Android. But rumors persist that Apple will release a smaller iPad, a larger iPhone — or both — later this year.

“Personally, I think they’re both pretty likely,” says Matthew Vartabedian, iGR vice president of wireless and mobile communications research. It’s a scenario worth pondering now, as any additional form factor(s) would affect developers. But exactly how much of an effect is up for debate. Vartabedian thinks that any additional form factor(s) wouldn’t have a major negative effect on developers.

“I would think that Apple has included the major developers in its roadmap and that we’ll see the release of the ‘big’ apps — Netflix, Pandora, Angry Birds, etc. — shortly after the (hypothetical) devices are released,” he says. “Other iOS devs will just follow along.”­

Keep in mind that more than 55 companies make Android phones and tablets. Even if Apple does release new models, all iOS devices still would come from a single company. That level of control should mean far less UI/UX fragmentation than with other operating systems.

It’s also important to consider why Apple would release additional form factors: to go after new demographics. If that strategy pays off, developers would benefit from the larger pool of potential customers. That’s also an example of why Android developers should pay attention to any changes in the iOS lineup.

“I’m specifically thinking of the possible 7-inch iPad, which I’m also assuming will be in the $200-$250 price range and will likely gut the Android tablet market, though we haven’t done anything specific research-wise on the pros or cons of a 7-inch iPad versus the competition,” says Vartabedian.

New iOS Form Factors: Are You Ready?
How much reworking can iOS developers reasonably expect to do if Apple launches additional form factors? There’s no definitive answer. One big wild card is whether a new form factor will change just the size of the device or the aspect ratio too.

“If Apple keeps the aspect ratio of either iPhone (3:2) or iPad (4:3), it likely won’t be a significant issue for most iOS developers since they hopefully already have elegant solutions in place,” says Charley Price, Hidden Variable Studios co-founder and creative director. “Since Hidden Variable develops for both iOS and Android simultaneously, we already have to handle everything from fairly wide iPads to narrow NOOKs (16:9).”

Like it or not, coming to terms with additional iOS form factors comes with the app developer territory.

“As mobile development diversifies and Android marketplaces such as Google Play, Amazon and Barnes & Noble become more viable, more and more developers are going to need to address these types of issues and integrate flexible UI elements into their apps to accommodate as many future devices as possible,” says Price. “Of course, there are a host of other variables that come into play with Android devices due to the sheer diversity of hardware specs out there. But if you’ve designed your app with a flexible UI system, at least you can rule out aspect ratios as a significant concern.”

For example, Hidden Variable’s “Bag It!” game has several UI elements that anchor the screen’s edges. The score anchors the upper-left corner, the pause button anchors the upper-right corner and so on.

“If you look at the game on various devices, there may be larger or smaller spaces between these elements, depending on the aspect ratio,” says Price. “But as long as your extreme cases look good, you’re generally in good shape on most devices in between. In terms of the background art, we basically fill the height of the device and then crop or expand the width of the view as needed. As such, our background elements — the shelves behind the bag, the floor, the conveyor belt, etc. — are all designed to accommodate the widest possible screen or be cleanly cropped to the narrowest possible screen, without compromising gameplay.”

Fragmentation: A Wake-up Call?
Each developer’s background would affect his or her ability to accommodate additional iOS form factors.

“When I worked at Google to help bring games to Android, a common pain point for developers who were porting from iOS was the screen size variety,” says Chris Pruett, chief taskmaster at Robot Invader, which specializes in games. “Developers porting from PCs or developing from scratch generally didn’t have much problem with the variety of screen sizes and resolution on Android devices because they saw it coming and designed for it. IOS developers, on the other hand, were often trying to port code that was based on a fundamental assumption that the screen size would not change. When this assumption failed, a lot of their code also failed and required a lot of rework.”

So for some developers, additional iOS form factors could be a wake-up call. “IOS has been so consistent for such a long time that it’s caused some developers who are not thinking long-term to fall into bad habits,” says Pruett, who writes all of his Android and iOS games to be screen-size independent. “So I think that if a third aspect ratio iOS device arrives, it will be pretty painful for some developers. Others, who already designed for this because they support Android or some other non-iOS platform, probably won’t miss a beat.”