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When Steve Jobs took the wraps off the iPhone back in 2007, he described it as, among other things, a "widescreen iPod with touch controls." But when we finally got our hands on one, we realized that wasn't exactly true. Sure, it was wider than any of the iPods at the time, but it wasn't quite widescreen--rather, the iPhone utilized a 3.5-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, closer to a standard-definition television set than an HD one.
But now, as we approach the sixth incarnation of Apple's iconic handset, it appears that the iPhone is indeed going full 16:9 widescreen, with a just-under-4-inch display that adds 176 pixels to its height while retaining its 640-pixel width. Besides increasing the physical length of the phone by roughly 9 millimeters (which will be more noticeable than it seems), the iPhone's alleged new display will no doubt enhance the iOS experience, with a fifth row of apps on the home screen and whatever other tricks Apple has up its sleeve.
But I'm not all that surprised Apple chose not to follow the how-big-can-we-get road paved by the Galaxy and the Nexus. If there's anything about the iPhone that sets it apart from the rest of the pack--other than its brilliant design, of course--it's the thousands of quality apps that run exclusively on iOS. Completely changing the aspect ratio wouldn't necessarily turn them away in droves, but it would certainly add a reason to consider another platform.
You see, it's not just about the new iPhone. Apple still has the iPhone 4 and 4S to worry about, and developers are not going to relish the task of suddenly designing for two vastly different resolutions. With a vertical-only change, Apple is assuring developers that designing new apps won't be any more difficult than it is today.
For one, existing apps can run as written, likely with a pair of black bars to block out the extra pixels (not unlike the iPad's pixel doubling feature). For another, adding height won't need to dramatically alter the appearance of our favorite apps. Apple is merely giving them more useable space, and I expect scrolling games like Doodle Jump and text-centric apps like Tweetbot to really take advantage of the extra real estate.
And Apple's making things even easier by bringing a feature called auto layout from OS X (in the land where where Macbook Pros are 16:10 and the 11-inch Macbook Air and iMac are true widescreen) to iOS. According to Apple's own developer notes, "Cocoa auto layout allows individual views to declare their own preferred size, which means you don't have to specify new layout if the label's text changes." In other words, the objects are smart enough to shift and scale according to the device they're on.
This process might work just as well for more width (though the data would probably get a bit scrunched), but the widescreen is a deliberate move by Apple. We all know Apple wants the iPhone to fit comfortably in our pockets, and everyone I know who has a Galaxy S III is forced to use a lame hip holster. But the main reason behind the change is Apple TV.
It's only a matter of time before Apple's streaming box is opened up to developers. Wouldn't it be something if Airplay worked both ways, and Apple TV could push content to your iPhone? Obviously, our HDTVs are 16:9, so a similar-sized handheld screen would scale Apple TV apps perfectly. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the so-called iPad mini is widescreen, too; if not immediately then certainly within a year or two.
So don't fret about the strange-looking screen you see in all those spy photos. There's always a method behind Apple's madness, and besides, after a few days of using it, we'll all wonder how we ever lived without that fifth row of apps.