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AH Primetime: Why Tablet Specific Apps On Android Have No Need To Exist

February 5, 2015 - Written By Justin Diaz

We all love apps. Heck, apps are the reason why smartphones and tablets are so popular these days. If there’s one aspect about them though that is or should be universally despised it’s the idea of having a tablet specific application that was designed and developed to only run on Android tablet. Android as a platform is so diverse and vast when it comes to the amount of devices that are out there, ranging from screen sizes of the fairly small to considerably large, and spanning across Android smartphones as well as tablets. Ever since the days of Honeycomb Android began to see the appearance of apps that were made specifically to run on tablets and tablets alone, perhaps because of the popularity of the iPad.

With each passing OS version we have seen most developers start to move away from that, as Android has become more unified across the board and optimized to run on both smartphones and tablets in a similar way. Google began this project of unifying the tablet and smartphone interface with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, and it has gotten better ever since. Despite having a pretty great setup for developers to take advantage of to make their apps optimized to shift in scale based on screen size, we still see apps that appear on the Play Store for tablets only, there are even some that had no tablet version and were only available on smartphones. Why this is still happening boggles the mind a little bit. Think about it, just for a second. Android has is set up in such a way that it looks great on both smartphones and tablets, and it’s built to make it easier than before to optimize apps for varied screen sizes. Developing an app for only tablet interfaces only limits the amount of users that have access to it and thus limits the exposure to the application. This doesn’t help the developers in any way. It also doesn’t help the end user because those who don’t own tablets have no access to an application they might otherwise use.

I’ll only say this once, because there shouldn’t be any need to say it more than that. Android “tablet” apps do not need to exist. The Android platform is designed to accept development where apps can be built with minor or even more prominent optimizations across smartphones and tablets of all sizes. There is no need to limit the user base to tablets only for any reason, whether it’s the notion that the app will only look good on tablets, or the crazy idea that only tablet owners will get any sort of use out of an Android “tablet” app. This type of thinking does little more than create a divide between the user and what may be a fully featured application. Computerworld’s JR Raphael gives probably one of the best examples for this topic, which is Microsoft’s recently released Office suite of applications that includes Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Tablets. All three of these apps are as Microsoft explains, “improved” over the version of those apps that has been available for the past couple of years for smartphones called Microsoft Office Mobile. Microsoft’s new suite of apps require a 7-inch display to install, but there is hardly much of a difference between a 7-inch display and some of the latest smartphones that sport bigger screens from 5.5-inches and above. It would be easy for Microsoft to optimize all three of their new apps to work across all screen sizes, instead of having separate applications for smartphones and tablets, with the smartphone offering being fairly watered down in what it gives to the user compared to the tablet specific version.

You can take a look at Gmail as a great example of how the application was optimized to work across all screens of varying sizes. The app obviously look mostly the same across the board, but once you move into a tablet interface you start to notice minor differences in the app, which is especially apparent in the tablet version of Gmail when you rotate the tablet into landscape orientation, which reveals the slideout panel in an always visible state, allowing the user to see both their inbox, and the highlighted mail side by side at all times. Flip back to portrait mode and you have virtually the same viewing experience as smartphone user, yet all the features are still accessible for both sets of users. No Android “tablet” version of Gmail, just one fluid app that is optimized just slightly with size specific tweaks. Developers need to take note of app design here, as this is how the android app should be executed.

Android as I stated is designed to handle apps across both sets of devices. Having an Android tablet only app is pointless and only limits users as well as developers. What app developers need to pay more attention to is how to design their apps better so that they are optimized for any size display. Subtle touches here and there for an app being used on a tablet are fine, just presented in a slightly different way on tablets to make use of the larger screen, so long as those features are still accessible from smartphones. Hopefully sometime in the future we won’t see limitations like these for Android apps, as there is simply no point in cutting out any portion of users based on what size screen they use.