iPad Mini and responsive design: What developers should be thinking about

Shane Schick

For many consumers, the decision to try out a (rumored) iPad Mini is a definite "yes." For Cristina Luminea, it's more of a "maybe."

Luminea is a developer originally from Romania who is about to launch her first application. I met her while in Dublin, Ireland last week for the Web Summit that took place there. Her startup firm, ThoughtBox, wants to specialize in interactive games for children and the first one, Numerosity, takes kids through a series of increasingly difficult math questions, with animated characters at the side to cheer them on. It's a tablet app, and as she demos it, Luminea sweeps her finger across the screen, moving around numbers, plus and minus symbols and other symbols. It's a broad canvas, which is suitable for what she's trying to create.

She's thought about recreating Numerosity for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, but she hasn't gone there yet. "When you get to a screen that size, the numbers [in the math game] are getting pretty small," she said. What about a possible iPad Mini, especially since a smaller and potentially cheaper tablet might be more likely to find its way into the hands of her target market? "We'll see," she said.

Luminea's reluctance will probably be felt throughout the developer community if, as believed by many experts, Apple launches the iPad Mini on Oct. 23. Forget about all the conversations over when and how to design cross-platform apps. The evolving dilemma will be more centered about responsive design and whether or not all apps should coexist across all device types.

It might seem like an iPad Mini, or any of the other smaller-sized tablets that have already hit the market within the past two years, will not be present any greater challenges than what already exists for a tablet vs. a smartphone experience. But no one really knows that yet, just as few people would have really understood how the emergence of touchscreens would change the mobile experience compared to the days when a keypad was the only option.

I keep thinking, for example, of "pinching." The ability to bring two fingers together on a screen and thereby bring icons together, zoom in on a picture or similar functionality was among the intellectual property that brought Apple and Samsung into a courtroom. It also represented a user experience that had not really existed before in a world of merely punching buttons. Yet you don't see a lot of pinching on smartphone apps or other motions beyond scrolling with your finger or the occasional swipe. However, these gestures can have a significant impact on what developers can offer in an app, and a mini-tablet means just a little less room than was available before. Will that be a good thing for apps? It's hard to believe so.

Think about it this way: the average tablet can comfortably accommodate two hands, which means many tablet apps can involve two-handed activities. The average smartphone, and its apps, are usually inviting to a pair of fingers or thumbs. A mini-tablet will probably be big enough for at least one hand, but unlike a smartphone will still likely require one hand to hold the device and the other to use an app or play a game.

While the tech industry has been speculating on an iPad Mini for months, I hope developers have been thinking along these lines as well and are adopting a responsive design that will accommodate users accordingly. It's one thing to picture the world downloading your app. It's another to picture in detail what their bodies will be doing when they're holding the device that runs your app, and how you can make that experience worthwhile.--Shane