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Apple must fight fragmentation if it goes with a larger screen for the iPhone 5

by Phil Hornshaw

Despite a few comments to the contrary, most of the unnamed sources and their unattributed quotes flying around the Apple-centric world are suggesting that the next iPhone is getting a bump in screen size up to 4 inches.

The latest source to weigh in on the discussion is Reuters, which cites unnamed sources close to Apple in stating that the iPhone iteration expected to be released this fall will have a bigger screen than its predecessors, jumping from 3.5 inches across to 4 inches. That’s something of a confirmation of a Wall Street Journal report issued yesterday to the same effect.

But as our own Brad Spirrison points out, a larger screen has big implications for app developers, and that’s a big reason to cast some doubt on the idea that Apple would be willing to mess too much with the design of the iPhone. Right now, app developers enjoy a fairly easy time of making apps for iOS devices. They have universal screen sizes that allow devs to build apps for one device – say, the iPhone 3G – and have them work on other devices and subsequent hardware updates, such as the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, and the iPad. Adjusting the screen sizes causes a road bump that will start to make iOS look more like Android, and could cause Apple its edge with developers.

A universal platform

Part of the reason Apple has such a commanding lead in the app market is that developers can make one app and have it work just about everywhere. Meanwhile, when they make apps for Android devices, each device has different hardware, a different version of Android, different screen sizes and resolutions, and apps have to be adjusted to take all those considerations into account. The effect of having apps that work on some devices and not others is called “fragmentation,” and not being fragmented has worked exceedingly well for Apple so far.

But Apple’s device lineup is growing more and more diverse, and that’s starting to make app development become harder and harder. The addition of the Retina display to the iPad, for example, created its own troubles with app development, which is why so few apps have been optimized for the new iPad: making those adjustments takes work.

Losing Apple’s edge

Rolling out a 4-inch iPhone is going to have a similar problem, causing developers to have to make their apps compatible with the device. Given that Apple has about a half a million apps in the iTunes App Store, that’s a whole lot of apps that need fixing, adjusting and updating – and it’s a fair bet that some of them aren’t going to work on the device. Suddenly, Apple would lose its advantage against Android, becoming a fragmented ecosystem in which some apps work and some apps don’t, and that’s not good for Apple, developers or consumers.

So it’s a fair bet that if Apple does opt for a bigger screen in the next iPhone, and it seems that many people think it will, then the company will have a plan in place to combat fragmentation. How Apple will handle that is anyone’s guess, however. It’s possible it’ll allow apps to use the old screen size of 3.5 inches instead, so that all the apps in the iTunes App Store will still be functional. Then, over time, Apple can require that apps start to meet the new size requirements so that there’s no down time.

But if there’s an argument against the larger screen, it’s that Apple won’t want to further inconvenience developers when so many of them are finding value in alternative platforms, such as Google’s Play app market and the Amazon Appstore. And after all, rumors about iPhones, even those with a widely held consensus, have been wrong before.

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