A long time ago, monitors were large in size and small in heart. The behemoths would reliably sit on the often waning and sagging desks of their owners with the standard VGA screen resolution of 640×480. As time went on, people found ways to cram more pixels into the same sized monitors, leading to SVGA (800×600) and then a subset of SVGA known as XGA (1024×768). As webpage and application users upgraded their systems, the webpage and application writers began making use of these extra pixels, putting larger and clearer images, better layouts, and more text without scrolling. The logic was sound: satisfy the base of customers that are the largest and try and deal with the rest, but the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Try browsing the Internet today with a 640×480 monitor and you’ll realize how much has changed. You can’t even get rid of your good old VGA displays anymore, even the trash companies don’t want them.
Then LCDs came around, and got even worse. Once again people found more ways to cram pixels in, this time making wide screen and crazy resolutions like WSXGA (1600×1024) and all the way up to 2048×1152 and beyond. All along, the applications and webpages were slowly written to perform well on larger screen resolutions, usually keeping 1024×768 as a minimum, but not always.
The screen resolution trend gained momentum. Lots of it, for good reason. I love my 2048×1152 LCD at home, especially for programming. I can see more data at once, more code, more files, all viable and at the touch of my fingers and mouse. If I wasn’t so cheap, I’d probably have dual LCDs.
Then, somewhere and somewhen, people started trying to push the trend backwards. Computers got smaller, but they also got slower. People packed less pixels, but produced mobile devices. They went back to the old standards of 800×600 and a new widescreen 1024×600 and came out with netbooks.
And guess what happened? All those lovely applications that are designed and tested for 1024×768 or above, are now broken. You have no idea how many times I’ve found an application on my netbook where the “Okay” button is hidden underneath the view of my 600 vertical pixels on my netbook, or some important menu option is hiding. In fact, I’ve at times went down to 800×600, because sometimes that will trigger alternate layouts out in the applications that 1024×600 won’t due to the different aspect ratio.
The momentum of the screen resolution trend is unlikely to be reduced anytime soon. Netbooks and mobile devices are just a slight friction, pushing developers to test their applications on smaller screen resolutions, making the real world a little more complex than a perfect world of 1024×768 defaults. Right now it looks like the market of netbooks and 1024×600 screens is too small for many developers to spend the time to make layouts look nice on them, even in Linux. In fact, I’ve found Linux to be quite a bit worse with applications having the bottoms cut off than Windows. Even some Gnome system settings menus will display incorrectly, with the “okay” button just frustratingly out of reach.