According to CNN — Apple might be readying its largest iPhones ever. Regardless of how you feel about that, it could mean one unequivocally crappy thing for all of us: The extinction of great, casual one-handed games.
The usual trickle of pre-release rumors suggests the iPhone 6 could come in two sizes: 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches. Enlarging the form factor ostensibly would help Apple better compete with already-huge Android handsets. But it also would jeopardize the iPhone’s promise of comfortable one-handed use — and that’s where the problem arrives with respect to games.
If designers can’t be sure we can grasp our phones with one hand, with our thumbs free to tap most of the screen, will they still spend their time making games that demand these conditions? If one-handed phones die out, why wouldn’t we assume one-handed games will follow?
Bennett Foddy, the gamemaker behind the Flash sensation QWOP and its iPhone incarnation, recently sparked the discussion on Twitter. A mega-iPhone would be a “massive mistake” on Apple’s part, he wrote. “I don’t really care as a consumer, mind you. But it matters to me as an iOS game developer, where it’s just going to be a design nightmare.”
How Fragmentation Affects Game Design
On one hand, the problem bigger iPhones pose to well-crafted games is simply one of fragmentation. It’s something that’s been a mounting challenge to exacting designers and developers since the initial iPhone.
“At the most basic level, good game design is concerned with the micro details of interactions,” Foddy explains. “How does it feel if I put this button 1.2 inches from the edge of the screen instead of 1.1? Does it feel nice and natural to swipe my finger in this particular arc?”
In the early days of smartphones, when there was a single touchscreen form factor to develop for, it was easy to work out those tiny details. Today, Foddy says, you just can’t achieve that level of tactile fine-tuning.
To make money, designers must put their games on as many screens as possible. As a result, many settle for making the experience “adequate” on devices large and small, Android and iOS. Effectively splitting the iPhone market into three sizes (including legacy 4-inchers) would only add to this problem.
But larger iPhones could mean an even more significant shift in the mobile games landscape. While you can find one-handed games for your gigantic Android phone, the majority of truly novel, thoughtfully designed portrait-orientation games arrive at least initially and often exclusively on the iPhone.
Think Threes, Ridiculous Fishing, Letterpress, Device 6. These are the types of games most at risk amidst the great smartphone embiggening.
The Gaming Use-Case That’s at Risk
It helps to remember that smartphones gave rise to a fundamentally new type of game, making way for the titles that have distracted us from our line-waiting miseries for the past several years. “Knowing that someone can touch most of the screen with one hand, you can design apps or games that live in the busiest parts of a person’s life,” Foddy says. “On the train, or at the bank, I can play Flappy Bird or Threes or Letterpress, but I can’t play a 3-D shooter.”
But if the next generation of iPhones are indeed 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches diagonally across, as has been rumored, it would mean that a significant number of iPhone users won’t be able to comfortably touch the whole screen with one hand. It makes those “busiest part of your life” games a much trickier proposition—and potentially bad business.
“If I make an app in portrait orientation, I have to assume half my customers will be holding it with two hands,” Foddy says. And if he wanted to make a game explicitly designed for one hand, “I basically have to give away a large portion of the market.”
Asher Vollmer, co-creator of the hit portrait-orientation numbers puzzler Threes, thinks Foddy’s concerns are legitimate. “One of the biggest complaints I get on Threes is that the retry button is too far away,” he says. “It’s in the top left of the screen. I can just barely get away with this because you don’t restart games too often, but if I released a game that required area-specific touch controls I would be in a lot of trouble with newer, gigantic phones.”
Is Awkward Gaming Inevitable?
Vollmer does point out that portrait games like Threes and Temple Run might ultimately be safe because their main gameplay controls work anywhere on the screen. But in a mondo-phone future, games with area-specific controls like Cut the Rope will have a more difficult route ahead.
It’s possible games will adapt, moving their controls to a thumb-friendly interaction zone in the bottom-right (or bottom-left) corner of the screen, but that isn’t the most elegant use of a huge touchscreen, nor will it work with every type of title. (Plus, the problem with larger displays isn’t just thumb-reach; it’s that one-handed operation of any sort becomes fraught at a certain size. You get people pinching the side with their palms, accidentally triggering taps on the screen, or else grasping them two-fisted like a Game Boy. All this uncertainty adds challenge for game designers.)
While a wave of bigger iPhones could be a death knell for a certain type of one-handed, casual game, there’s evidence that these sorts of games are already on the way out. Just look at the bestseller charts for Android Play and the iOS App Store. As of writing, there was exactly one portrait-mode game to be found among the top twenty bestsellers on both stores.
It’s a glossy update of Tetris for the iPhone, an old game that just happens to have lived in a long, tall rectangle all its life. By comparison, App Store records for the same week in 2010 show that a full half of the top-selling paid games for the iPhone were portrait-orientation.
So why the dearth of popular portrait titles on the charts today? It might be that we’re just increasingly coming to think of smartphones as sideways, two-handed gaming devices. As phones have become more powerful, games have become more cinematic, and cinema always looks better in widescreen. Plus, we now have other portrait-mode diversions like Twitter and Instagram to fill those idle moments in line and on the subway. The addicting pleasure of “pull-to-refresh” even lends some of those apps a game-like element of their own.
Looking at those App Store charts, Foddy can’t help but see evidence that mobile gaming has turned on its side.
“The days of DoodleJump and SpellTower and Letterpress are gone,” he says. “Everything is in two-handed landscape mode, a mode for people who are sitting down or lying in bed, and devoting all their attention and manual capability to the game.” In other words: Bigger, better, brighter phones have lead us to bigger, better brighter games.
The demise of the one-handed game becomes fascinating when you take this slightly longer view. For a brief spell, the advent of a touchscreen device that fit comfortably in one hand gave birth to an entirely new type of diversion. These were tiny things, just as easy to put down as they were to pick up.
We didn’t have to carve out time to play them; they lived in nooks and crannies of down time during our day. But with the rise of less graspable phones and the abundance of time-wasters we now have for them, the conditions that allowed for those games to exist may well be evaporating.
AWS launches Amazon Honeycode, a no-code mobile and web app builder
AWS today announced the beta launch of Amazon Honeycode, a new, fully managed low-code/no-code development tool that aims to make it easy for anybody in a company to build their own applications. All of this, of course, is backed by a database in AWS and a web-based, drag-and-drop interface builder.
Developers can build applications for up to 20 users for free. After that, they pay per user and for the storage their applications take up.
“Customers have told us that the need for custom applications far outstrips the capacity of developers to create them,” said AWS VP Larry Augustin in the announcement. “Now with Amazon Honeycode, almost anyone can create powerful custom mobile and web applications without the need to write code.”
Like similar tools, Honeycode provides users with a set of templates for common use cases like to-do list applications, customer trackers, surveys, schedules and inventory management. Traditionally, AWS argues, a lot of businesses have relied on shared spreadsheets to do these things.
“Customers try to solve for the static nature of spreadsheets by emailing them back and forth, but all of the emailing just compounds the inefficiency because email is slow, doesn’t scale, and introduces versioning and data syncing errors,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “As a result, people often prefer having custom applications built, but the demand for custom programming often outstrips developer capacity, creating a situation where teams either need to wait for developers to free up or have to hire expensive consultants to build applications.”
It’s no surprise then that Honeycode uses a spreadsheet view as its core data interface, which makes sense, given how familiar virtually every potential user is with this concept. To manipulate data, users can work with standard spreadsheet-style formulas, which seems to be about the closest the service gets to actual programming. ‘Builders,” as AWS calls Honeycode users, can also set up notifications, reminders and approval workflows within the service.
AWS says these databases can easily scale up to 100,000 rows per workbook. With this, AWS argues, users can then focus on building their applications without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure.
As of now, it doesn’t look like users will be able to bring in any outside data sources, though that may still be on the company’s roadmap. On the other hand, these kinds of integrations would also complicate the process of building an app and it looks like AWS is trying to keep things simple for now.
Honeycode currently only runs in the AWS US West region in Oregon but is coming to other regions soon.
Among Honeycode’s first customers are SmugMug and Slack.
“We’re excited about the opportunity that Amazon Honeycode creates for teams to build apps to drive and adapt to today’s ever-changing business landscape,” said Brad Armstrong, VP of Business and Corporate Development at Slack in today’s release. “We see Amazon Honeycode as a great complement and extension to Slack and are excited about the opportunity to work together to create ways for our joint customers to work more efficiently and to do more with their data than ever before.”
Slack announces Connect, an improved way for companies to talk to one another
Virtual events are the new norm for product rollouts in 2020, with Slack taking to the internet earlier today to talk about a new part of its service called Slack Connect.
On the heels of Apple’s lengthy and pretty good virtual WWDC that took place earlier this week, Slack’s event, part experiment and part press conference, was called to detail the firm’s new Slack Connect capability, which will allow companies to better link together and communicate inside of their Slack instance than what was possible with its shared channels feature. The product was described inside of a business-to-business context, including examples about companies needing to chat with agencies and other external vendors.
In its most basic form, Slack is well-known for internal chat functionality, helping teams talk amongst themselves. Slack Connect appears to be a progression past that idea, pushing internal communications tooling to allow companies to plug their private comms into the private comms of other orgs, linking them for simple communication while keeping the entire affair secure.
Slack Connect, a evolution past what shared channels offered, includes better security tooling and the ability to share channels across 20 orgs. The enterprise SaaS company is also working to give Connect-using companies “the ability to form DM connections independent of channels,” the company told TechCrunch.
The product could slim down email usage; if Slack Connect can let many orgs chat amongst themselves, perhaps fewer emails will be needed to keep different companies in sync. That said, Slack is hardly a quiet product. During his part of the presentation, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield noted that the service sees up to 65 million messages sent each second at peak times.
According to the CEO, Slack Connect has been piloted for a few months, and is now available for paid plans.
Slack shares are off 3.8% today, before the news came out. Its broader company cohort (SaaS) are also down today, along with the market more broadly; investors don’t appear to have reacted to this piece of news, at least yet.
Apple has acquired Fleetsmith, a startup that helps IT manage Apple devices remotely
At a time when IT has to help employees set up and manage devices remotely, a service that simplifies those processes could certainly come in handy. Apple recognized that, and acquired Fleetsmith today, a startup that helps companies do precisely that with Apple devices.
While Apple didn’t publicize the acquisition, it has confirmed the deal with TechCrunch, while Fleetsmith announced the deal in a company blog post. Neither company was sharing the purchase price.
The startup has built technology that takes advantage of Apple’s Device Enrollment Program, allowing IT departments to bring devices online as soon as the employee takes it out of the box and powers it up.
At the time of its $30 million Series B funding last year, CEO Zack Blum explained the company’s core value proposition: “From a customer perspective, they can ship devices directly to their employees. The employee unwraps it, connects to Wi-Fi and the device is enrolled automatically in Fleetsmith,” Blum explained at that time.
Over time, the company has layered on other useful pieces beyond automating device registration, like updating devices automatically with OS and security updates, while letting IT see a dashboard of the status of all devices under management, all in a pretty slick interface.
While Apple will in all likelihood continue to work with Jamf, the leader in the Apple device management space, this acquisition gives the company a remote management option at a time when it’s essential with so many employees working from home.
Fleetsmith, which has raised more than $40 million from investors, like Menlo Ventures, Tiger Global Management, Upfront Ventures and Harrison Metal, will continue to sell the product through the company website, according to the blog post.
The founders put a happy face on the deal, as founders tend to do. “We’re thrilled to join Apple. Our shared values of putting the customer at the center of everything we do without sacrificing privacy and security, means we can truly meet our mission, delivering Fleetsmith to businesses and institutions of all sizes, around the world,” they wrote.