Size doesn't matter... resolution does

This post was originally published on AIIM's Expert Blogs by Serge Huber, CTO at Jahia Solutions


These days, when reading the mobile tech blogs, I get the impression that all reviewers are interested about is the screen size, especially when talking about the rumors of the next iPhone. It seems that what everybody wants is a bigger smartphone screen, a bigger tablet screen, a bigger laptop screen, etc (yet strangely nobody wants the weight associated with this). I can understand this from a consumer point of view, but from tech reviewer's point of view they should be more careful as to what they are wishing for!

Screen size is certainly important, but not as important as screen resolution, especially when talking about mobile platforms. When you look at the Android platform that is dealing with a serious fragmentation problem (see you begin to wonder if there isn't a more widespread problem.
There are over 244 (!) different resolutions listed there, and judging from the list it is not even exhaustive since most recent ones are not present.
You may be wondering why this is a problem, especially from a content producer or a consumer point of view? The problem is that in order to make content available universally, it must adapt to a very wide net of devices, and the more diverse these machines are, the more complex is the work to adjust the layout and form of the content to be usable on these platforms. This hinders the content availability and - at the same time - keeps the content producers from reaching the widest audience because of technical barriers.
In my company we have seen this problem often, and customers usually choose to target the "major mobile platforms" (i.e. just choose one), in order to reduce cost. They sometimes even have to choose between targeting tablets or smartphones, which is a real hard choice to have to make these days. The cost for companies to build sites or native applications for a large variety of platforms, even with a modern content management system, is daunting. Associated with the cost is of course the speed of execution and reaction that becomes longer in a world that expects nothing less than real-time delivery. So in terms of business this seemingly purely technical problem is actually having a large impact.
One mobile hardware company that has understood this problem, at least to some extend, is Apple. They have resisted pretty well to the temptation of multiplying screen resolutions and instead managed to limit them to a minimum. They knew that doing so would allow developers, designers and content producers to deal with a limited amount of combinations of screen sizes and resolutions, and spend more time improving their software rather than making it universal. When they needed to increase screen resolutions, they wisely chose to multiply it by two, which makes it look like nothing has changed on legacy applications - an acceptable solution.
The only time they got it wrong was with the initial iPad. Even internally, this project was top secret, and so it is quite probable (although I'm only speculating here), that the people that lobbied for a limited number of resolutions were not initially consulted when choosing the resolution of the iPad. The problem? The aspect ratio and the resolution of the iPhone and the iPad are not compatible, so when using an iPhone application on an iPad, even when zoomed, it has borders around it. Clearly Apple learned from that mistake when they released the iPad 3 (aka The new iPad), as they went to extraordinary lengths to create a new screen technology that didn't exist until then, just to make sure they could double the resolution of the previous model, and therefore make sure that all existing applications would run seamlessly on the new screen.
Allowing developers, web sites designers and content producers to target a limited amount of resolutions is a win-win solution for everyone, and it seems crazy to me that hardware designers are not understanding this better, constantly churning out new devices with different screen resolutions. Even Google is trying to put a stop to this, yet at the same time trying to address the resolution problem through documentation and more flexible layout technologies.
In the desktop this problem was initially present, in the early days of computers, mostly because the needs for standardization were not yet understood, and the benefits only appeared much later. But we as an industry have gone through this once, let's not do it again please! Even hardware manufacturers’ jobs would be easier: they have less combinations to produce.
Sure, we can get around these problems by using the latest CSS 3 media queries or using flexible layouts. But these solutions can be tricky to deliver, and could still benefit from a limited number of target resolutions.
Maybe this is the time for some standard on mobile screen resolution ? Or if there are some I'm not aware, maybe it's time they were enforced ?
Serge Huber
Serge Huber
Serge Huber

Serge Huber est co-fondateur et directeur technique de Jahia. Il est membre de l'Apache Software Foundation et président du comité de gestion du projet Apache Unomi, ainsi que co-président de l'OASIS Customer Data Platform Specification.