Mobile - - By Peter North

Would You Value a Smaller iPad?

For quite a long time, there have been rumors and speculations that Apple may introduce a smaller, cheaper version of their wildly successful iPad. This is unquestionably good news for mobile users, many of which have already accepted the smaller screen sizes (and welcomed the lower price tags) of competing tablets such as the Google Nexus, Amazon Kindle, and others.

At worst, a smaller iPad would be nothing more than an additional option for tablet buyers to consider. When Apple introduced the iPod Nano (a smaller equivalent of their larger, more robust, more expensive iPods), it was quickly accepted and became one of their most popular products. Apple’s iPod Nano rapidly overtook competing MP3 players that had previously competed with Apple in terms of price. It’s hard not to view Apple’s smaller, cheaper music player as a “win” for customers.

But, for mobile developers, the consequences of a smaller iPad are much harder to determine, and they may not all be welcome changes. iPhone and iPad apps are designed very carefully to make the most of every inch and every pixel available. Introducing a distinctly different third size might ultimately require the design of apps that are sized exclusively for the rumored “iPad Mini.”

In the short term, this could mean more work for mobile developers, which is hard to view as a bad consequence. But, is making a third size of iOS device good for the app industry? Clients who want an iPhone and equivalent iPad app might not be willing to pay for the development of a third, “mid-sized” version. Which begs the question, how would developers accommodate a smaller iPad?

Would “Shrinking” Your iPad App Or “Growing” Your iPhone App Suffice?

One possible way to accommodate a mid-sized iOS device would be resizing apps that are designed for smaller or larger devices. This is already in practice on the iPad, where users can use iPhone apps and display them at 200% of their intended size. While this is a functional and practical accommodation, it’s not without downsides. The proportions of the iPad screens are different from that of iPhones (resulting in wasted screen space), and the graphics of even the most well-designed iPhone apps look pixelated and primitive when doubled in size. If users can’t make the most of their screen’s large iPad, it causes the tablet – and the apps that we design so carefully – to lose a lot of appeal.

Would shrinking an iPad app to fit an “iPad Mini” have different results. Yes, it would, but it would also have different downsides. Shrinking interface elements below their intended size will make the app much more difficult to use. Apple’s own Human Interface Guidelines state minimum sizes for buttons, menus, and other interactive elements. So, in a sense, if Apple were to enable the “shrinking” of iPad apps to fit “iPad Mini” size, they would essentially be breaking their own rules.

What About Retina vs. Non-Retina Displays?

Developers past experiences with optimizing their apps for retina displays serves as a good example of developers accommodating major Apple hardware changes. May developers had to redesign all of the aesthetics of their apps to keep a clean, professional look and feel to their product. Those who didn’t optimize their apps had to tolerate a glitchy, noticeably pixelated appearance.

Eventually, retina displays became a less pressing issue as all new iOS device models phased out older, non-retina models. But, part of making a new, miniature iPad cheaper might involve excluding the expensive retina display. As dreadful as it sounds, this might mean that developers who want a pixel-perfect appearance for their apps might need to re-optimize (or rather, de-optimize) their apps from sharper retina displays back to older equivalents. It’s hard to view that as progress, and some developers might even identify iPad Mini users as price-sensitive customers that aren’t even worth accommodating.

Conclusion

Users will notice right away if an app was designed for a different device and lazily “ported” to fit within the new constraints of a smaller tablet. Steve Jobs himself summarized his view on “mid-sized” 7-inch iOS devices in 2010:

The reason we won’t make a seven-inch tablet isn’t because we don’t want to hit a lower price point, it’s because we think the screen is too small to express the software.”

The “software” that Steve Jobs mentioned isn’t just Apple software; it’s mostly the millions of apps designed by independent developers. App users would unquestionably welcome a third size to choose from, but ultimately the legwork required to make such a device successful may be left to third-party developers.

A smaller, cheaper iPad would almost certainly enable Apple to compete with more affordable tablets and gain a bigger share of the mobile hardware market. But from the perspective of a developer, it’s hard to decide whether to the possibility of a third iOS device is dreadful or delightful.

What do you think? Would you welcome a smaller iPad? Is it a chance to market to a new group of customers, or would it just create more development work with very little payoff?

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