The Hidden Apple Preview?

Much has been said about Apple’s new iPhone, so I won’t rehash here most of what has been said elsewhere (except to say that I really really want one — preferably with a 120 GB hard drive in it…). There was one detail, however, that kind of jumped out at me, and it was a minor enough thing that pretty much everyone else seems to have missed it, but at the same time it was huge and staring us in the face during the entire presentation.

Completely separate from rumors of the Apple phone and commentary on the previously announced iTV (now “Apple TV”), There is another major technology expected to come out of Apple that has largely flown under the radar recently. I’m referring to their upcoming Resolution Independent User Interface.

Probably the biggest reason this has remained on the down-low is that it’s a bit difficult to explain — it can’t easily be reduced to a sound bite the way “Apple phone” or “TV media player” can be; but it’s an important technology for the future of computers and computerized gadgetry in general.

The quick and dirty version of what that is is thus:

Remember back when you had an 800×600 resolution monitor? Later you got a newer monitor with a resolution of 1024×768, and while the screen itself was bigger, icons, text and the like displayed smaller on it — that is, there was more stuff packed into the same amount of screen space. The resolution had gone up. Maybe you didn’t like things smaller, so you figured out how to set the resolution back to 800×600. Maybe you just settled for the smaller icons. Eventually, programs such as Microsoft Word (and for that matter, Windows itself) gained the ability to use “large” icons and text in the toolbars and such, to make up for the shrinking caused by expanded resolution. With the rise of Mac OS X, we saw the ability to use large or small icons on virtually every toolbar on every application.

The real geeks among us even figured out that we could go into Terminal in OS X and change the scaling of the GUI — that is, tell the computer to display programs at a certain percentage of “default” — but that has glitches, and really is more of a hack than anything else. Notably, if you scale something bigger, it looks pixel-y. The nice crisp edges and lines are messed up.

So Resolution Independent User Interface (“RIUI”) is a system by which the operating system is designed to be resizable, no matter what resolution your monitor is. Why is this important? Because as computers become more and more varied in size and form, people are more and more running the same programs on systems as varied as 22-inch high-def screens, to 12-inch laptops, to handheld gadgets such as… the iPhone.

Apple has been quietly talking about RIUI as a feature of an upcoming OS release. Reportedly many people thought it was going to be part of OS 10.4, which it wasn’t, and now it is reportedly going to be part of the upcoming OS 10.5. I personally think we’ve already seen it in action. Where? I’m so glad you asked….

In last week’s Keynote presentation at the MacWorld Expo, Apple CEO Steve Jobs got up on stage and presented the soon-to-be-released iPhone, which is basically a mobile phone and handheld computer running a full version of Mac OS X. The way he showed it to the audience was to actually use one, with a special extra board installed that gave it a video out port so what he was doing could be projected onto the big screen on the stage. Let me say that again. He was holding in his hand a computer with a screen size of a couple inches by a couple inches, and that computer was outputting video that was being displayed on a huge projection behind him on the stage.

Now, If you did that with you average Palm handheld, that big projection would look awfully pixelized. That’s just the nature of taking a certain resolution and sizing it up significantly. Have you ever looked at an image on your computer and zoomed in and in and in until it looked like a bunch of colored boxes? Same thing.

That projection on the stage looked pretty clear to me. It looked like a far higher resolution than the 160dpi that the iPhone reportedly has, but according to Steve (and by all indications as he used it and the projection updated instantly) it was the iPhone in his hand that was creating the image we saw on the projection. I think that Jobs was slyly showing us the Resolution Independent GUI all through his presentation. He never mentioned it, but he subtly got us used to the concept of viewing the same interface image at radically different scales and resolutions without any loss of crispness or image fidelity.

Somewhere down the road when they release this feature as part of an OS, people are going to be pointing to this presentation as the first public unveiling of the technology that Apple has already perfected.

Just remember — you heard it here first.

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