Windows 8 Tablet Fragmentation and the App Dilemma

on September 21, 2012

I was having a discussion with an iPad software developer recently and we were discussing the iPad mini. Interestingly he was still a skeptic about the iPad mini and I thought his reason was interesting. He noted that the apps they develop, and primarily the user interface, are specifically designed for the current iPad screen size. He said that everything is placed where it is for a reason.

His skepticism about the iPad mini was based on his conclusion that if a 7-8 inch iPad was to come out his current app would not work. His point was that 2 or so inches may not seem like a big difference but for many apps that have menu’s and touch based navigation interfaces, 2 inches is a lot of screen real estate to loose. Basically he had concluded that for many applications developers would target each tablet screen size independently.

His points got me thinking. First of all I agree with him. If we have learned anything about Apple’s developers is that they are willing to take the time to make sure their app experience is ideal no matter what the screen size. The iPhone 5’s larger screen and app developers already starting to take advantage and optimize their apps for the new 4” screen. Interestingly Apple, during this transition, is faced with having apps with two different looks and feel in their app store for both 3.5” and 4” iPhones. So as developers look to tweak their UI for the iPhone 5 which app UI will we see in the app store? Apple is solving this elegantly but only showing consumers the new app UI for 4” apps only if they have an iPhone 5. That way consumers who don’t have the iPhone 5 will still see app preview screenshots of the 3.5” UI.

Now with all of that in mind let’s turn our thoughts toward Windows 8. In all the above examples I mentioned we were talking about screen size differences ranging from .5 to 2 inches of difference. And within that extremely small range we should expect to see developers uniquely tweak their app experience and UI. In essence they are not simply shrinking or expanding their apps to work on smaller or larger screens, they are in essence creating new app experiences for those screen sizes. Windows 8 touch based hardware will be so fragmented in screen size that we will see touch based Windows 8 hardware ranging from 10” all the way up to 27.” If developers feel the need to optimize their software for a screen that is anywhere from a half-inch and even a 2” difference, what will they do when they have 4, 5, or 6 different screen sizes to target in the Windows 8 touch hardware ecosystem? And more importantly will they feel that their energy and resources will be worth the investment and hard work?

Microsoft needs developers to be writing touch based applications but my concern with the touch based hardware fragmentation is that it will may cause them to target only specific screen sizes and not others. This would mean that the touch based software experience will be better on some Windows 8 hardware but not others. I can tell you right now that an application that is built for 10” Windows 8 hardware is not going to be a pleasant experience on a 27” all-in-one running Windows 8 with a touch screen.

Some categories, like games for example, may work fine within this fragmentation. However, it would seem logical that even developers of many of the popular games may want to make tweaks for larger vs. smaller screens that may run their apps.

The bottom line is that I expect developers who are looking to sell software to the masses to want their software to be the ideal experience on any screen size. To do that they will inevitably need to write software and create user interfaces that are specifically made for certain screen sizes. This is where I feel developers may feel the need to pause and truly evaluate the effort they put into Windows 8 touch based software.

You can make the point that the screen size fragmentation I mention has existed for decades in the Windows ecosystem. This is true but I fundamentally believe that when it comes to mouse and keyboard software and UI this fragmentation is not an issue. Because of the unique way touch based software UIs are made, I believe fragmentation becomes an issue when it comes to touch computing in a way it never was with mouse and keyboard computing.

I believe touch computing is the future, and so does Microsoft with the emphasis they are putting on touch. Microsoft’s challenge over the next twelve months is to convince developers who also believe in touch based computing that their platform is the one worth investing in.