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Developers scramble to ready apps for iPhone 5

Now comes the mad rush to make apps ready for the phone's larger, 4-inch screen.

James Martin/CNET

As rumors of a big-screen iPhone 5 intensified late last month, engineers at the read-it-later app Pocket went into hacking mode, scouring the Internet for ways to tweak the iPhone's official software development kit so they could redesign their app for a bigger screen.

Ever since Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, widespread speculation has held that the next iPhone would boast a 4-inch screen. For hundreds of thousands of developers, that posed a potential problem: Would their apps look strange on a bigger screen? And how would they build mock-ups when the official iOS simulator showed the old 3.5-inch display?

Such is life in the Apple developer ecosystem: You make crucial product decisions based on guesswork and design apps for devices you've never seen. This time around, the iPhone speculation proved largely correct. But even now, developers are tweaking their designs without an iPhone 5 in hand -- and by necessity, they're getting creative.

For Pocket, which claims 6 million users, that meant hacking the iOS simulator. Various Web sites offered instructions on how to modify the simulator so it could display the 4-inch screen.

App developers are re-working their apps to prepare for a larger screen. James Martin / CNET

The modifications made the simulator buggy, said Nate Weiner, Pocket's founder and CEO. But eventually it worked. Within a couple days, Pocket expects to release an update that will make it ready for the iPhone 5's 4-inch screen, more than a week before the device becomes available.

"The biggest question is how it feels," Weiner said. "That's going to be hard to do to until you get it in your hand. Is that menu button at the top too far to reach? Do we want to shuffle any of that around?"

'A very big deal'
Those questions also loom large at Evernote, which itself has been using a modified version of the software development kit to get a head start on iPhone 5 development for its 38 million users. "It's always a scramble to make sure all our stuff looks really nice on it," said Phil Libin, Evernote's founder and CEO.

The company had zero inside information about the iPhone 5's larger screen, he said, but followed the rumors along with everyone else and got to work early -- redoing its apps with the faith that rumorville would prove correct.

Still, there's only so much that can be done in advance. Creating a top-notch user experience for a device that no Evernote employee has yet touched creates challenges. Figuring out how best to use bigger canvas afforded by the iPhone 5 screen requires careful thought. "It's a very big deal," Libin said. "Until we actually play with it in our hands, we're just not going to know how good it is."

At Evernote, designers carried around cardboard cutouts before the first iPad launch in an effort to get a better sense of how the device would feel. To prepare for the bigger iPhone screen? Well ...

"We've been offering thumb-extension surgery for some people," Libin joked. "There's a clinic in the Philippines that will make them a little bit longer."

While Apple doesn't let developers see the device in advance, its SDK makes it relatively easy for them to adapt apps to difference screen sizes. Plus, plenty of developers are used to tweaking their apps for different screens already, given that building for Android devices requires optimizing for many different sizes.

That's one reason why Bump co-founder and CEO David Lieb said he isn't worried. "Apple takes a lot of care to make sure that any announcements like this, where they're changing the screen size or resolution, are really easy for developers to handle," said Lieb, whose apps let users share contacts, photos and other data by bumping phones together. "The only caveat is that now we have a little bit taller screen."

EA's early access
The one company in a privileged position with regard to iPhone 5: Electronic Arts, the only developer that got to demonstrate a new iPhone app on stage at Wednesday's Apple event. Apple gave EA's Firemonkeys studio, based in Melbourne, Australia, early access to the device so it could showcase its forthcoming Real Racing 3 game for iOS.

Nick Earl, who oversees EA's mobile studios, said the iPhone 5 preview gave the team a head start on building the next version of its popular racing game. All future games for EA studios will be built to fill the 4-inch screen, he said. Older games will appear letterboxed.

How much time with the device did it get? Not surprisingly, Earl wouldn't say. And few people within EA had access to the device. "They're pretty careful about where it goes," he said, in the understatement of the day.