Developers On iPhone 5: Redesigning Apps Not Hard, But Also Not Trivial

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The new iPhone 5 has a new screen with new dimensions, and this time, making existing apps fill that space and look good isn’t just a matter of doubling dimensions of all assets like it was with the introduction of the Retina display. This time around, the change will require more varied responses, depending on what kind of app or app element you’re working with.

I spoke to a couple of developers of varying technical expertise and experience, and picked their brains on what kinds of challenges people are facing in getting their apps ready for the iPhone 5. Existing unmodified apps will run fine in letterbox mode, with two black bars on each side, but users will be hungry for updated apps that show off the new screen, so developers are understandably trying hard to be ready on day one.

To-do app Clear developer Milen Dzhumerov explained via email that it isn’t a straightforward question of one solution-fits-all:

The amount of work depends solely on whether the interface in question is inherently stretchable. For example, a lot of applications are size-constrained thus they employ scrollviews. For those types of applications, supporting the new screen should be a matter of removing assumptions in any layout code about the screen height. A non-trivial component would be any assets that would have to be stretched vertically to take up any additional screen space – obviously, this requires more effort and collaboration with the app’s graphical designer(s).

You can view on a continuous scale where the amount of graphical assets and scrollable areas proportionally determines how much effort would be required. The apps with the highest amount of graphics and least amount of scrollable areas would require the most work, while those light on images and scrollable portions should require much less effort.

That’s leaving aside any consideration of actually using the new space to do something interesting. I think, for the most part, developers will keep things simple for their first go around, and make sure their apps look good on the new screen, and then think more deeply about what to do with the new pixels.

Clear was an easy one, Dzhumerov said, since it only needed one code change to work perfectly on the new iPhone. This is because its elements have a constant vertical size, and more vertical screen space just to provide more room for rows.

Crowd-sourced weather app Weddar founder Gonçalo Catarino had a bit more to change, but he said it was also relatively simple, despite the fact that he’s a designer first with only a relatively modest understanding of iOS development. He explained via email:

You don’t need to do anything with the list views, they just appear with more information courtesy of  the new extra height space.

In the map view, I just added an “if” statement to check which the present screen dimensions and define the map dimensions accordingly. I just need to check for iPhone 4 and 5 height, so this was pretty simple, too.

In the Report screen where we use a .xib view I use a new “Auto Layout” feature Xcode has, and just define the constraints for the objects’ relative positioning on the screen depending on the device it’s working on.

So to sum up, developers will have to do some work to get on board, and Catarino says that there are already plenty of threads in the official Apple developer forums about the process. Hopefully that means new iPhone owners will be seeing very few black bars come September 21.