Next week my Playbook will arrive. Billed by Blackberry as their Flash playing alternative to the iPad, it’s probably make or break for them in the Tablet market. On the surface, things look promising; at half the size of an iPad, with the ability to stream video and play Flash movies, it does at least have a clear point of difference, although it’s inexplicable inability to link to the Blackberry Exchange Server and actually deliver your corporate emails is, at best, embarrassing.
Still, the market is looking for a clear competitor and the truth remains that, although there are hundreds of devices on the market, I have, so far, not seen a single person anywhere in the UK using a device in public that isn’t an iPad.
The Playbook release has led me to think about a longstanding question; how much does the form factor of distribution affect content? It’s clear that training developed for the iPhone or Blackberry is going to deliver a radically different experience from that developed for the iPad. By the very unscientific method of holding my phone up to the screen, i reckon that the iPad has over six times the screen size of the phone, meaning that you can either make the imagery and text six times bigger, or fit six times as much on the screen at once.
This benefit of screen size has become apparent with the number of iPad specific App versions. Take Twitter for example. The iPhone version is functionally different from the iPad version. On the tablet, you can see the menu on the left, the Tweet feed in the middle, and details or links that have been opened in a frame on the right. You can swipe to bring that frame front and centre if you like, or minimise it in the background. On the phone, it just launches in Safari.
Well, maybe, but we won’t be doing that. The playing field for a developer is already complicated enough. We create iPhone versions, something different for the pad, something different for Blackberry, and for Windows Phones. There’s an overhead for each transition. Not only at a code level, but at a functionality and graphic design level.
Having to re-author things for multiple platforms takes some of the fun out of life. This isn’t a new problem in some ways. We’ve faced similar challenges in video for some time, with widescreen and HD formats, but they were more easily fixed. You’ll have watched many films that have been ‘letterboxed’ with the left and right sides chopped off to fit a particular screen. We generally don’t even notice what’s missing, as the action takes place in the centre, but this approach won’t work with Apps or e-learning. You can’t just chop off the menu.
There’s no doubt that different sized canvases offer different experiences. Not just larger or smaller, but fundamentally different. There’s also no doubt that there is a limited appetite for developers and authors to expend too much effort on multiple platforms. We reckon it costs around 40% addition budget to go cross platform between Apple and other devices. That’s a huge overhead of coding. If you need to factor in graphic design and user experience, it suddenly ramps right up.
The market wants to differentiate by innovation, no replication. It’s likely that we will end up with a range of devices, from small ‘phone’ type screens, through small and large tablets, then probably some giant ones to hit the market in the near future (although watch the rumours that Apple will release a mini iPhone, compounding the challenges still further). Greater variation in size adds to all sorts of overheads. Just this week we’ve been filming some scenes for an App on time management. We’ve had to think, in some areas, that props need to be much larger, to fill the screen, so they are identifiable on the iPhone screen, but without making them look unnaturally large on the iPad, so you see that challenges are stylistic and artistic as well as technical.
Our own experience with learning applications is that out of every five Apps we distribute, four are used on an iPad. It holds 80% of the market share, almost certainly driven by the fact that uses love the screen size and clarity. I’d be very surprised if the Playbook could approach that figure, but the future is far from clear, and i wouldn’t put it past Apple to release a mid size pad either, which would certainly sway things.
As i say in the title, you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, at least not without damaging it, so whatever happens, both developers and learners will need to think long and hard about what they actually want. Whilst the majority of Apps are cross platform at the moment, this may well change in the future. It’s a hugely exciting time, but the beta-max/VHS memory is still on some people’s minds, and nobody wants to back the loser.