Tackling 'fragmentation': Developers sound off on supporting multiple screens
Android runs on a variety of devices, which means it also runs on a variety of screen sizes and resolutions. Lots of folks call this "fragmentation." Never mind the fact that they've been using products designed and developed the same way for years on their desktop. Apparently if everything isn't exactly the same it gets the "fragmentation" label.
There are different ways to tackle the problems that arise when you use screens with different sizes and densities. Apple has separate listings for apps designed for the iPhone versus the iPad. Microsoft creates a new eco-system for its big screen devices. Android provides a way for developers to make the same app work differently for different screens. There's good and bad about each method, but we're going to focus on Android here.
In Android, applications can adjust the layout for different size screens as well as resolution. This is all built in, but there are a few things developers need to declare in their code to make the app look good. The thing to keep in mind is how screen size and density will change the look of the app. The Droid DNA has a higher-res screen than the Motorola XOOM tablet, but we don't want to see a tablet layout for apps on the phone-sized screen.
A developer needs to provide assets (images) that are high enough quality to look sharp at high resolution (never mind insanely high resolution), and be sure to use density independent pixel units when designing their layout. This is what keeps things like buttons and other controls from being really big on low density screens like the Galaxy S2, or from being really tiny on high density screens like the DNA.
It sounds complicated, but most of this stuff is done for you when coding an app. All the developer needs to do is make the right declarations, and provide the right assets to support any size (both physical and resolution) or layout. Even multiple layout apps like the Google+ app use the same code to cover every conceivable screen.
We're not trying to judge developers here. Writing apps is tough. The Android developers have been preaching all this since the release of Gingerbread, but how practical is it? We asked a few developers about it, see what they had to say after the break.
More: Google's Android developer site.
We asked a handful of developers (both big and small) a couple basic questions on the subject.
- How difficult is it to adhere to the guidelines?
- It looks easy on paper, but are there any special issues you've seen or parts that Google hasn't covered?
- How did this affect development time and costs, if at all?
- Anything further about the subject you'd like to share?
I tried to make the questions as neutral as possible so that we don't go into this with some bias in place. When in doubt, you ask the people who know, right? I've done my fair share of programming, but coding in Java and building Android apps is very different from writing code in C or machine code, or even Perl. There are nuances I don't understand, even if I get the general methods of building an app.
I imagine a good number of you guys are like me and don't know the intricacies of building Android apps. We only see what the Android developers say, and they make it sound easy. For them, it probably is -- they've been writing this stuff from the ground up since 2007. Let's see what the folks who have been able to follow them have to say.
Joe Simpson (@kennydude) -- Boid
Joe is a member of Team Boid, and also publishes applications on his own. He (and the rest of his team) are a great example of independent developers with a passion for Android who have cranked out some amazing applications.
Boid is soon to go open-source (yay!), and you can find the app itself in Google Play. You'll also find all of Joe's apps (there's some jewels there) right here.
Christophe Versieux -- BeTrains - SNCB Belgium; HoloEverywhere
Christophe has built numerous Android applications, including BeTrains - SNCB Belguim -- an app with a gorgeous layout that shows what can be done with a well-built application. While most in the US will never use it (it's a train schedule app for Belgian rails) it's worth installing just to see how well it's done. The folks in western Europe certainly know about this one.
In addition, he has co-developed HoloEverywhere, a library that other developers can use to build Holo style applications for Android 2.1 and higher. With many phones still running Gingerbread, this is a real treat for developers who want to keep their apps looking current.
You can find BeTrains on Google Play, and you'll want to take a look at HoloEverywhere if you're interested in Android development.
Matthew Runo -- Zappos
In contrast to some of the smaller independent developers we talked with, we also heard from Matthew at Zappos. Zappos is a web retail corporation and likely has a dedicated budget for design on both their website as well as their applications. It's also a company that I purchase from regularly, but this had no bearing and the Matthew was unaware that I am a frequent customer when he volunteered.
I can say that Zappos' design choices work well, and my wife has a closet full of clothes, purses, and boots that reinforce my claim. Check out their Android app from Google Play.
Josh Burton -- jRemote
Josh has authored numerous small applications for Android, and his jRemote application (it's a controller for the popular jDownloader PC program) is a perfect example of how to use layouts to create an app that looks great on both the phone and a tablet. It maximizes the use of the device screen, and gives you the information you're looking for exactly how you would expect it.
jDownloader is a handy program to use on your desktop, and jRemote looks like a wonderful way to control it. If nothing else, download it from Google Play and have a look just to see how an app can be simple and beautiful at the same time.
We heard from plenty of other developers who pretty much say the same things. We're just out of room here to list them all out. The gist of it all is that if you plan ahead, the Android developer guidelines really do work for most cases. We're glad to hear it, and will continue to enjoy great apps and support hard working developers.
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Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.