packing pixels for a new iPhone

i've never really been one to add grist to the rumormill, but i've been intrigued by the recent speculation over what the dimensions of the next generation iPhone screen will be, both in pixels and inches. i had an idea about this on my own last week, even before i knew that this was a hot topic. the coverage of the topic on Hypercritical e64 introduced me to the current theories. if you want to be totally up to date, go read all the posts in that episode's show notes; if not, i'll summarize briefly along the way. there are two prevailing theories, but i'd like to add a third.

theory #1: the stretched "16:9" iPhone

this is the theory posted on The Verge and "corroborated" by John Gruber. the notion is to keep the horizontal resolution and size of the screen fixed at 640px and 1.94 inches, but to streeeeetch the vertical resolution. the original theory was to take it to 1152 px to achieve the magic 4 inch mark, leaving the screen with a somewhat awkward 9:5 ratio. there are lots of aspect ratios on the Wikipedia uber-doom-chart of screen sizes (including 17:9!), but 9:5 isn't one of them.

when The Russians Used a Pencil picked up this idea and ran with it, they just assumed that the stretched iPhone would have a 16:9 native ratio (instead of the somewhat ridiculous 7px pillarbars that would result in showing 16:9 content on a 9:5 version). one problem: 640 isn't divisible by 9. that leaves a bit of a quandary. either Apple goes into totally new aspect ratio territory with a stretched screen, or has to alter both dimensions to get true 16:9.

theory #2: just blow it up

the other prevailing theory is to leave the pixel resolution of the screen untouched, but just make it bigger, and therefore less dense. people are quick to note that Apple left itself fudge factor to take the resolution down to 300 ppi without having to alter its marketing definition of "Retina Display". (given the "hey, remember trig from high school?" earnest excuses for the 3rd-gen iPad's pixel density, i don't think this is something Apple wants to compromise on, either.) doing a strict scale to 300 ppi would push the diagonal measurement to ~3.80 inches. not bad, but not exciting either.

theory #3: emulate the iPhone's big brother

here's my idea which, as far as i know, hasn't been entered into this discussion. (if i've just missed it, i don't mean to step on anyone's toes. and please do send me any links you find.) the foundation of the stretch theory is that it's easy to keep manufacturing screens at the same ppi — apparently it can be done on the existing equipment. if that's the case, why cut panels that are wacky new aspect ratios? how about a 1024 x 768 (a.k.a. XGA) panel?

does that number sound familiar? of course, it's the pixel dimensions of the original iPad. but what would turning the iPhone into a mini-iPad achieve? first of all, the physical dimensions. preserving the 326 ppi density, the screen would have a diagonal measuring ~3.93 inches, which does better than theory #2. in terms of pixel dimensions, it would be a gain of just over 172K pixels, or an increase of 28% in screen real estate. that's a pretty good boost, especially compared to the 20% uni-directional boost of theory #1.

the question is whether taking the cue for the next iPhone screen from the iPad gains anything other than pixels. i have no fancy mockups of case designs or interfaces (as demonstrated by the above size comparison graphic), but i think it's fairly safe to say that the iPad has proven that running iOS on a 4:3 ratio screen has been a success. a major qualm about a 16:9 screen is whether it would be possible to do anything but watch video in landscape mode, short of having to design one-line text input interfaces. but i do see benefits beyond just having a squatter shape.

  • developing from iPad ⟶ iPhone some developers would be able to take existing iPad art assets and drop them directly onto the iPhone. this is obviously a no-go for applications with complex interfaces designed to take advantage of the iPad's physical size — slowly do the five-finger pinch gesture on TweetBot for the iPad and watch how as it scales down, the tweets are perfectly legible but the buttons become an un-tappable size. however, some have surmised that games would have the most art to redo to accomodate a naive aspect ratio, but most games already have 4:3 assets and code for iPad.
  • developing from iPhone ⟶ iPad iPhone developers reluctant to put a lot of time into a dedicated iPad version (either in the form of a separate app or separate code in a universal app) are second-class citizens. the 2x mode of scaling iPhone apps looked bad enough on the first two generations of iPads, and it looks comical on the 3rd generation. but, as many who got launch-day 3rd generation iPads noticed, non-retina iPad apps looked pretty damn good with pixel-doubling and native text scaling. blurring the line between iPhone and iPad apps has its pros and cons, as does forcing active developers to have a 4:3 interface and assets. however, it may push iPhone users ambivalent about buying an iPad over the line if they know that all of their purchased apps will look good on their new device. Apple is trying to drive hardware sales, and with iPhones saturating the market as much as they have, this is the currently operational halo effect.
  • unification, not fragmentation it seems more than fair to presume that Apple doesn't want to introduce another aspect ratio to the iOS universe. taking a cue from the iPad for a new iPhone would accomplish that, and could even reduce the total number of aspect ratios to just one within a couple hardware generations. the question then is more a matter of taste: is 4:3 really the aspect ratio of the future, and not an aspect ratio of the past? for devices that primarily operate in portrait orientation, i see no reason why it couldn't be.

those are my thoughts. it seems just crazy enough that Apple would consider it. i suppose in a couple months i'll know how wrong i was.

fence me in

one of the highly touted features of iOS 5 at its introduction was Reminders. the feature that made the WWDC crowd ooh and ah wasn't just an official Apple to-do list, or a fancy timed alarm system (neither of those would be particularly innovative), but the ability to set location-based reminders. buy milk next time you're at the grocery store? get there and *buzz*. or so we thought. then this came across the twitter: [blackbirdpie url="!/waferbaby/status/124518378076520448"]

[blackbirdpie url="!/dokas/status/124520733496979456"]

hold on. i have to go to the grocery store before i can remind myself to buy something there? what if i want to remind myself to call my family when i arrive at an airport halfway across the country that i've never been to before? well, there's one other option: you can set reminders up for addresses that are tied to one of your contacts. i guess that would be fine if it didn't impede your productivity, but even stranger, it tempts you to violate Apple's aesthetic.

the garden of Apple

anyone who's ever watched an Apple product keynote knows about the perfectly cultivated, mythical world that exists within their demo devices. every photo is in focus with smiles. basic word processing tasks become graphic design projects and suitable-for-framing posters. every item is tagged down to the last iota of metadata. everything is beautiful. in one sense, this is just to put on a good face and show the product in its best possible light. in another sense, you get the idea that Apple actually expects you to use the product this way.



on e57 of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Merlin Mann talked about the similarities between Apple and Disney, particularly in re: the insane attention to detail and upkeep that's required to keep Disney World the most magical place on earth. they mentioned the fact that the Magic Kingdom is never empty; it's staffed 24/7, even if it's only open to the public during the day. keeping everything just so is a literally constant effort, and as such is only possible when done in shifts by a team of workers. Apple may or may not be a 24/7 company (at least not on the design end; who knows when you take into account overseas production by OEM manufacturers). nevertheless, they've shown us that with their own product in their own hands, they can keep up the illusion of perfection, down to a perfectly manicured garden of contacts, faux and real, social and business.

however, Apple isn't in the theme park business. they are in the computing business, which inevitably means handing over their precious product to be maintained by us, the users. we have different tastes. we want to tinker, or hack, or just be plain lazy. we would suck at running Disney World, for the most part. nevertheless, by force of implementation or by mere suggestion, we are still pushed towards The Apple Way.

breaking the illusion

the paint begins to crumble and the facades of Main Street USA fall down to reveal the fluorescent-lit office buildings behind them when the inutility of iOS 5 location reminders comes to bear. the odds of gaining value by setting up a reminder to trigger at the location you're already in, or at the home or business of a friend or colleague, are very slim; chances are a plain or timed reminder would work just as well. what's the workaround? well, you can put that address in a new contact. but then Grocery Store is in your master contact list along with Your Mom (the lack of good nickname support and the notion that you would want to list your close family members as Firstname Lastname is a separate rant).

people do this kind of stuff all the time. people create contacts with first names only; people deliberately put where they know somebody from instead of their last name; people list their best friend as aaaSteve so he's re-alphabetized to the top. but you would never, ever see such a one-off, hacky way of squeezing utility out of the OS put on stage for demonstration. it would be quintessentially un-Apple.

building a better fence

geo-fencing is nothing new, but Apple is just now dipping their toe into it. and, if you still use iPhoto (i'm sorry), you know that Apple's idea of efficient place management is anything but. still, i'm a bit disappointed that i can't set up a reminder of the following type:

remind me to buy bagels at CTB on the second Tuesday of every month only if i'm in Ithaca, NY

i could set up an iOS 5 reminder at my apartment in Ithaca, which would probably trigger on the appropriate day, but that seems like a slightly odd way of doing it. or, if i target the actual bakery, i may never stumble into the arbitrarily sized (and presumably rather small) geofence that surrounds it. i might even have to get close enough to see the sign out on the sidewalk advertising the monthly special before my reminder would be triggered. in that case, a decidedly 20th century reminder would be more effective than my 21st century one.

fortunately, there is hope that we won't have to just build kludgy reminders and faux contacts, while we wait for Apple to catch wind of the fact that we're dissatisfied with the project. the technology that underlies the location-based reminders is a new OS service in iOS 5 that does low-power GPS tracking. and, perhaps surprisingly, it's not a proprietary API call. that means that third party developers are free to use it and put apps in the official App Store that use it. Foursquare already announced a new feature called Radar that uses it to send you notifications based on friend activity in your vicinity. this means that similar functionality, including arbitrary geofencing, ought to be able to be merged into a reminder app. Remember The Milk has already added location services to their Android app; their first priority for iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S was to get Siri working with RTM, but i can only imagine that they'll be adding location support next. and then i will gladly buy their app and subscription service over using a wonky Apple implementation. will i be upset if Apple steals their feature for the next version of Reminders? no, in fact i expect it; it should have been there in the first place. if they can build a better geo-fence than the competition, they will win back my fence-building business.