By May 22, 2012

New iPhones And Old Apps: Is It Time For Apple To Clean House?

There’s little doubt that Apple’s next iPhone will have a larger screen.

According to the rumor mill, one of the handsets being tested is said to feature a 3.95-inch widescreen display with a 640 x 1136 resolution. That’s about 0.45 inches taller than the 3.5-inch, 640 x 960 display currently used in the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4.

But regardless of the actual specifications, it’s fairly obvious that existing applications will need to updated to work with the new screen resolutions.

So with that in mind… is it time for Apple to clean house and obsolete non-conforming apps?

Most iOS applications, given a chance, would work just fine on a taller screen. But quite a few others are laid out with fixed-size graphics that simply wouldn’t take well to being stretched and distorted vertically. Or in any dimension at all, for that matter.

Apple is said to be testing builds of iOS 6 that are custom-built to the new iPhone’s display. These builds include a tweaked home screen with a fifth row of icons (besides the stationary app dock) and extended application user interfaces that offer views of more content.

But that doesn’t help third-party applications.

One proposed solution lay in “letterboxing” current applications. This would entail putting a small, quarter-inch black band at the top and bottom of the screen, similar to what happens when you watch a wide-screen movie on a conventional television.

In effect, an existing application on an iPhone 5 would look identical to the same app running on an iPhone 4 or 4S.

But “letterboxing” also leaves us with the equally obvious conclusion that current apps would require updates in order to take full advantage of the new screen. Even if that update does little more than set a flag indicating that a specific app is “wide screen” ready.

Which brings us to the App Store.

After nearly four years, the App Store hosts over 600,000 apps from more than 200,000 registered developers.

With that many apps, and over that period of time, it’s safe to assume a good part of them haven’t been updated or maintained by their developers in a while.

In fact, the problem even has a name: abandonware.

Benjamin Mayo, a young iOS developer who just released Bingo Machine for iOS, recently noted in a MacStories article how abandonware affects search and rankings on the App Store.

“[Apple] puts downloads above ratings. As the App Store has matured, this means that older apps tend to rank higher, as they have been on the store for longer. However, these apps are also more likely to crash and be neglected, as their developer lost interest over time and not updated for new OS compatibility.”

So here’s the opportunity.

Apple simply needs to “obsolete” apps that aren’t updated to support iOS 6 and multiple-resolution devices.

Some have gone on record saying that such changes would be an unnessary burden on app developers.  One iOS developer recently told GigaOM that “changing the aspect ratio would be a lot of work for development teams. We found that maybe 50 percent of iOS development is [spent] in layout.”

But many apps are based on common interface elements like UITableViews, and would work just fine with an extra row or two showing on the screen.  The design work, if any, usually exists in the splash screen, toolbar, and cell styling. Those fall into the “flip a switch” category.

And the way I see it, “obsoleted” apps wouldn’t totally be removed from the store. They’d simply be listed below updated apps in app search results.

Such a move would make newer apps easier to find, and reward developers who continue to take the time and trouble to update and maintain their applications.

Of all the categories, games would probably require the most work. But that’s going to be true no matter what.

Some developers will make the effort. Others will not.

And regardless of screen size, some developers will update their applications to support iCloud and new APIs and whatever new functionality iOS 6 brings. Others will not.

I say we reward those that do.

So what do you think? Is it time for Apple to clean house?

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