What a 'designed for tablets' label says about an app

Editor's Corner

Shane Schick

There are plenty of ways to explain what responsive design is, but here's my favorite: If you're squinting at the screen, it's not a responsive design.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), on the other hand, recently decided that no matter how well developers manage to make an app render across different devices, consumers will be better served if they are able to shop by form factor. That's the only rational explanation for the recently-launched "Designed for Tablets" section that now appears in its Google Play app store. It's not like the search firm is discriminating against some apps exactly: Consumers will still be able to see everything that's available, but "Designed for Tablets' will act as a curator of sorts, putting those that meet Google's criteria in a prime position for maximum discoverability. As for the rest, they'll get a "Designed for Phones" label, which at this point almost seems like some kind of insult.

Apple, of course, is doing something similar with its "App Store for iPad" app, and I imagine the smaller app stores will follow suit, if they haven't already. This is something that makes sense for consumers because the first thing they want to do when they get a new device is find apps to use on it, and the last thing they want is to get apps that will perform poorly on it. That should be of top concern to developers too, but it's surprising how many apps and games are still clearly created with a single hardware platform in mind, with versions for tablets designed as an afterthought. Maybe they're waiting for the tablet market to grow larger than it already has, or they assume consumers are savvier about this than they actually are. Either way, it's the kind of mistake they really won't be able to make much longer.

In fact, I would argue this issue is going to become even more complex and challenging as the mobile software space evolves. Once more smart watches hit the market, how will the app store providers filter the apps that are specifically intended for wearable computing? And as we move towards the Internet of Things, which could connect mobile devices with all manner of sensor networks, there could be just a few apps that are truly responsive, many that come close, and a lot that will look as antiquated as feature phones.

Given the challenges so many developers face in getting their apps noticed, responsive design thinking at the earliest stages of the product development cycle has never been more important. The industry is full of platitudes about anytime, anywhere computing, but the developer community has a long way to go before the majority of apps can move across any kind of screen. --Shane