At some point today, many of us will be tearing open our just-arrived Fedex or UPS packages, or rushing out of the Apple Store or other retailer, unboxing our brand new iPhones -- the iPhone 5 -- restoring them from iCloud, and launching our favorite App Store apps and games... only to see some with letter- and pillar-boxes.
Of course, a ton of really popular apps have already been updated and will be ready to go a launch. But other will take some time. So, before anyone jumps into comments or forums, or takes to Twitter, App.net, or Facebook -- or even thinks about leaving a bad App Store review -- to voice their frustrations over the lack of instant updates, there are a few realities to take into account, and some expectations that need to be properly set.
Why is this a thing?
With the iPhone 5 (and the iPod touch 5, shipping in October), Apple has changed the aspect ratio of the screen for the very first time. It's gone from the 2:3 that it's been since the original iPhone shipped in 2007 -- that persisted through the iPhone 4S in 2011 -- to 16:9. To do that, the iPhone 5 is adding 176 new pixels, taking the resolution from 960x640 to 1136x640. That means developers and designers need to figure out what to do with those extra pixels.
Can't it "just work"?
There's nothing automatic here for anyone here. No app will magically stretch to fill the new, longer iPhone 5 screen anymore than any app magically doubled in pixel density to look sharp on the iPhone 4 and iPad 3 Retina displays. The reason for that is simple -- Apple can't assume an app is built to support 16:9, so they'd rather letter- and pillar-box everything rather than risk having an app looking terrible or breaking if forced to fill a screen it was never designed to fill.
But that means it'll take some work to update apps. Depending on the app, maybe a little, and maybe a lot.
So how do apps become "widescreen ready"?
At a minimum, developers and designers will have to indicate their apps support 16:9, compile them against the iOS 6 SDK, include a special graphics file that tells iOS they're widescreen ready, and then submit them to Apple for (re-)approval.
For apps that use lists or grids, and/or implement a lot of standard controls and automatic layouts, flowing content into the longer (or wider) screen will likely be a lot easier than apps that use heavily customized interfaces.
For developers of apps and games alike who don't just want to show more of the same stuff, but take advantage of the extra screen space to provide different stuff the process will be even more involved.
Also keep in mind that developers will continue to have to support the 3:2 aspect ratio of the still-for-sale iPhone 4, iPod touch 4, and iPhone 4S. Interface elements can't simply be cropped off on older devices. Pixel-perfect designers and developers will want their interfaces pixel-perfect on every screen supported by iOS 6.
Add to that, very few developers and designers have actually been able to see, much less test on an actual iPhone 5 yet. Aside from the apps shown off by Apple at the iPhone 5 event, it's a safe bet next to no one has. A lot of developers and designers are smart and experienced enough to use the tools Apple has provided to prepare and update anyway, but no one likes to launch an app that they haven't been able to run, hold, and hammer away at on real hardware.
Lastly, given how many apps will no doubt be submitted to the App Store this week in anticipation of iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 launch, even if this work itself is quick, the approval process could well be a bottleneck.
Apple will want to showcase "widescreen ready" apps, the way they've showcased "Retina ready" apps previously, so they'll work as fast as they can, but there are limits to everything.
How do you know developers are actually working on it?
Gedeon Maheux of the Iconfactory
A number of iOS clients have already contacted us about updating their apps for the new, taller iPhone 5 screen. From the moment it was announced, the Iconfactory started including these new UI requirements into our workflow. I suspect it won't take long before we start to see many of your favorite apps updated and ready.
Davd Barnard of App Cubby:
Apple works incredibly hard to make sure that things work as expected for developers, and I’m hopeful that this will be an incredibly smooth transition. However, it’s still a risk for developers to just blindly support a new screen size and architecture without being able to fully test on actual hardware. We can test in the iOS simulator, but the simulator is — as the name would suggest — just a simulation of what the app will be like on an actual device. Over the years I’ve found quite a few bugs on a device that can’t be replicated in the simulator. Not to mention UI issues. The simulator just can’t replicate the feel of swiping, tapping, and other key aspects of touch-screen apps. It’s tough to know how an app is going to feel until it’s under your fingers.
Bottom line, it’s risky to support a device I haven’t tested on. But, given Apple’s track record of managing these transitions well, and the minimal amount of code we had to change, we decided the risk was worth taking. We’ve already submitted 3 App Cubby apps (Launch Center Pro, Timer, and Mirror) and will be working hard on Gas Cubby and Trip Cubby this week.
Marc Edwards of Bjango
We've completed the work required for Consume and iStat 2 to support the iPhone 5's taller display. We needed five images for Consume and one for iStat. All up, it was a few hours work each. Some apps will require more work, but this is far less painful than the non-Retina to Retina transition. The big caveat is that we haven't done any device testing yet, but that's the same as most developers.
So what can we expect when we get our Phone 5 ?
When you get your iPhone 5, and all your apps have downloaded, some of them will support 16:9, and some of them will do it well. If you see a letter- or pillar-box, however, before you complain -- and most especially before you leave a negative review -- take a moment. Take a moment to consider that the developers and designers love their apps and hate seeing them boxed even more than you do. Consider that they're probably working around the clock to get their updates done, working blindly do to it, and waiting patiently and powerlessly for Apple to approve them. They'll get them to you just as fast as they can.
Give developers or designers a few weeks or a month to get their basic updates done and approved by Apple, and then, if any apps look abandoned or look like they're going to go without an update, you can let 'em have it.