When you’re building a website or a Web application – how big is the user’s screen going to be? That used to be an easy question to answer, but now it’s getting a lot harder. And that means a lot of extra presentation-layer work for someone on your team.

When I first started building static websites, back in the Neolithic era, the typical desktop or a notebook had a screen that was 1024×768 pixels or 1280×1024. There were some outliers, mainly at 800×600. Based on that, page design was set to be somewhere around 700 pixels wide. That let everyone see everything, without worrying about horizontal scrolling.

Since then, three things that happened to change those assumptions:

1. Wide-screen displays have become more common, which means that monitors are shorter and wider. Designs have to take both dimensions into account. My 15” MacBook Pro and 13” MacBook Air, for example, are both 1440×900. This can be a problem when showing images that were formatted for a 1024-pixel-high display.

2. Huge monitors are becoming common. Modern desktops monitors (or external displays for laptops) seem to start at 1680×1050, and go all the way up to 2560×1600. A 700-pixel-wide web page is lost in all that real estate – but what behavior does your application exhibit if the browser window is widened?

3. Mobile devices are all over the map. With handsets, an Apple iPhone 3GS screen is 480×320, the iPhone 4 is 960×640, Motorola’s Droid2 is 854×480, and HTC’s HD7 is 800×480. For tablets, the iPad is 1024×768, the Samsung Galaxy Tab is 1024×600, and the Motorola Xoom is 1280×800. Most mobile browsers dynamically scale down wider pages or graphics to fit, but still, it’s good to know what you’re shooting for.

Here’s a snapshot of data taken this month from one particular source – the sdtimes.com website. It’s a “focus group of one,” and may not reflect what you get on your own website or Web applications, but it’s a data point to think about.

Craig Reino, SD Times’ Director of IT, told me that, “Resolutions are undergoing a revolution. Where there used to be a clear majority among our browsers on sdtimes.com there is now a wide range of resolutions. The most popular has only 14% and it is 1280×1024.”

Specifically, here are the top 10 screen resolutions, pulled from our web analytics:

1280×1024: 14.02%
1280×800: 12.87%
1440×900: 10.62%
1680×1050 10.17%
1024×768: 8.26%
1920×1200: 7.19%
1920×1080: 7.00%
1366×768: 6.86%
1600×900: 2.33%
320×480: 2.03%

Does this match your experience?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were horrific in scope. The subsequent challenges with the Japanese nuclear power plants has magnified the disaster. Where will it end? How many lives were lost, how many families shattered? As I write this, the world has many questions, but sadly, not many answers.

Like many of you, my thoughts first turned to my friends and family members who live in Japan. I was gratified to quickly learn that all were safe – in large part, due to social networking. Rather than jamming up phone lines, for example, I could see a cousin’s Facebook posts and see that he, his wife and his young daughter were out of harm’s way.

Natural disasters can strike anywhere. Earthquakes, of course, are an ever-present danger in Northern California, where I live. Flood, fires, hurricanes, airplane crashes, those are only some of the hazards. In some countries, of course, there’s also the threat of war, of oppression, of rebellion – we’re reading about that in the news headlines. It’s a dangerous world we live in. For too many of us, surrounded by all our luxuries and technology, it’s easy to forget that.

There’s a lot that we could talk about today. About how social media is making the world smaller. How cloud-based apply and backups can help a business (or a family) recover quickly in the event of a property loss. About how distributed software development lets us experience more of the world’s diversity than traditional on-premise organizational models.

But instead I’ll say: Be safe.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Archeologists criticize Smithsonian over Java Objects.

That headline in the New York Times’s Arts Beat section gave me pause. What type of Java objects are the historians upset about? Are Lara Croft or Indiana Jones going after some valuable POJOs or something?

The story made it clear that these Java objects aren’t instantiations of members of a class that contain their own state and inherited behaviors, but rather to valuable artifacts salvaged from a shipwreck near Indonesia. Oops. My bad.

My excuse: As I write this, Java is pretty high in my mental stack, thanks to our just-completed AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference.The conference was a tremendous success, far exceeding our expectations for a debut event. (Mark your calendar for AnDevCon II, November 7-9, 2011, in the S.F. Bay Area.)

The bad news is that some of the classes were too crowded, and that the conference hotel’s wireless infrastructure buckled and collapsed under the strain of a myriad laptops and mobile devices. Even the local 3G carrier networks crumbled under the load.

The good news is that attendees learned a lot about Android development, many receiving their first real hands-on experience with Honeycomb – that’s Android 3.0, running on Motorola’s Xoom tablet. (My attempts to integrate a prototype Motorola tablet with a Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L to create a Xoom lens were, alas, unsuccessful.)

But seriously: the post-Oracle-acquisition concerns that “Java is dead!” are washed away when you consider Android’s rapid trajectory. Oracle’s lawsuit notwithstanding, Java is in tremendous demand as the native language for Android apps. Sure, the installed base of iPhone handsets is huge, and when it coms to tablets, Apple’s iPad has a huge head. Not only that, but the faster and thinner iPad 2 is sure to sell well, even though it’s merely an incremental upgrade. {link to last week’s take} But the wind is currently at Android’s back.

As someone who keeps an iPhone 4 in one pocket and an HTC Evo in the other, clearly there are benefits to both platforms. It’s to our benefit as developers and consumers to have the Mobile Wars continue. Competition, innovation, that’s good for us, and good for the evolving markets.

Perhaps someday we’ll see Android phones being dug up by archeologists… and stored, together with the iPhone, in the Smithsonian. Wouldn’t that be something?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Earlier this week, Apple announced the iPad 1.1, the long-awaited successor to its magical tablet.

The iPad 1.1 is very similar to the original iPad (which I’ll call the “iPad 1”), except that it’s available in white. It’s a bit thinner. It’s a bit lighter. It has a dual-core processor (Apple says 2x faster), a better graphics chip (Apple says 9x faster) and more memory.

Oh, it has a couple of cameras, a rear-facing one for shooting photos and videos, and a front-facing camera for doing video chats. The iPad 1.1 comes in two versions, one for GSM wireless networks, the other for CDMA networks.

Apple calls this device the iPad 2. However, it’s a minor incremental upgrade, and should really have been called iPad 1.1 or maybe iPad 1.5. Beyond the cameras, there’s nothing especially new here. Same screen. Same range of installed storage, from 16GB to 64GB. Very similar pricing, starting at US$499. Minor tweaks to the operating system to add support for WiFi hotspots, media sharing, and a few other goodies.

Don’t mind my skepticism: I was one of those who preordered the iPad 1 last year, and truly love my tablet. I use my iPad every day. Of course, I also use my iPhone and HTC Evo Android phone every day, so perhaps I’m easily swayed by cool gadgets. Even so, this was one announcement from Cupertino that didn’t impress me much; my credit card stayed firmly planted in my wallet.

My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that Apple released this very incremental upgrade as a competitive reaction. It had to respond to the sudden proliferation of Android tablets like the Viewsonic gTablet or Archos 7 or Motorola Xoom. Offering the iPad 1.1 now offers Apple several benefits:

• It keeps the iPad in the news. Apple is a brilliant marketing company, knows how to stroke the media and sway public opinion.
• It addresses the single biggest area where Android devices had an clear advantage — cameras.
• It let Apple integrate a Verizon-compatible CDMA radio system without reworking the old hardware.
• The dual-core A5 chip and added RAM solves performance issues that prevented some bigger applications from running on the iPad, like iMovie.
• It maintains sales momentum and media attention until the real next-generation device (iPad 3) comes out, perhaps as early as this fall.

That said, let’s turn our thoughts to Android tablets, which will be helped significantly by the newly released Android 3 “Honeycomb.” Personally, I’m thinking about buying the Motorola Xoom — once the WiFi-only version comes out. (I do not need another wireless bill, thank you very much; that’s why I have a Novatel MiFi.)

Yes, gadgets are good, and having lots of tablets drives consumer choice, fuels competitive innovation and lowers pricing. But from the developer perspective, the unfettered explosion in form factors is a worry. What is that going to mean for hardware/software compatibility, third-party apps and building a huge ecosystem?

Apple’s tight control over the its own hardware makes it easy to know that a tablet-oriented iOS application will run on every iPad device, with only rare backward-compatible limitations. Similarly, Microsoft’s WinHEC {} and tight reins over its Windows logo program meant that you can be pretty much assured that any modern Windows application is going to run on any modern Windows device.

With the open-source Android platform, though, hardware makers are free to “innovate” without limitation – and that means more than just different screen sizes. You can have different processors, different amounts of RAM, different input technologies, different ports, different cameras and other peripherals, different power-management systems, different collections of libraries, different device drivers, different builds of Android itself… and nobody policing the hardware abstraction layers.

Already I have an issue with the Line2 telephone application, It’s “certified” for three Android models – and my HTC Evo isn’t one of them. Sometimes Line2 just doesn’t work well. The developer, Toktumi, says “Voice quality is a known issue on HTC EVO 4G (Sprint) phones.” Have some other Android device? The company says, “If you don’t see your device listed here you can still download Line2 and try it for free however we can’t guarantee performance quality on non-certified phones.”

That frustration may be the future of Android.

Many iPad customers are perfectly contented with the beautifully designed, carefully integrated hardware packages that Apple presents. Android represents the diametric opposite. Android is getting a lot of attention because it offers unfettered creativity and competitive differentiation. Let’s see what happens if that differentiation leads to fragmentation. If that happens, Apple’s carefully curated walled garden may begin to look more attractive.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick