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Retina iPad Apps and Apple’s 20MB 3G Download Limit

Retina iPad Apps and Apple’s 20MB 3G Download Limit

The possibility (or rather, likelihood) that the iPad 3 will get a Retina display is a big win for iPad buyers in almost every way. Sharper and clearer images, higher-resolution videos and gaming, and an improved reading experience are just some of the many improvements such a display would bring. But there’s also one significant issue that a Retina iPad would cause – it will make it impossible for iPad users to download most apps over 3G.

The Problem

The Next Web‘s Matthew Panzarino wrote an excellent article explaining the situation, in which he states:

Apple’s iPad 3 is set to launch next week and all signs point to it having a Retina display running at 2048×1536 pixels. This should provide a clearer, sharper image to most users and will display many applications in a fantastic new light, as long as developers have prepared them properly.

But the necessity to include these images may present a problem with the mandatory 20MB file size limit that Apple has imposed on 3G downloads.

The trouble is this: Any iPad app that wants to support the higher resolution Retina display would need to include images four times larger than the images they’re currently using for the original iPad or iPad 2. This means that the images (which make up the bulk of the size of most apps) would increase significantly in size, pushing most if not all apps over the 20MB 3G download limit currently in place on all of Apple’s iOS devices. One of the main concerns with this is that it might discourage users of 3G iPads from downloading and trying new apps.


Now that we’re clear on what the issue is, what’s to be done about it? The issue raises a number of questions. Why was this limit put in place in the first place? Why does it affect the iPad (and iPhone), but not Android tablets and smartphones? And is it really Apple’s limitation, or one imposed by wireless carriers?

The fact of the matter is that this is an ancient limitation that AT&T insisted on before becoming the exclusive carrier for the first iPhone. In those days, most apps were under 20MB, and AT&T wasn’t sure what affect smartphones would have on their network. While the iPhone has carried this restriction, and also spread the restriction to the iPad through iOS, other smartphones and tablets were able to avoid the limitation, as carriers no longer found it as mandatory.. The iPhone was first, so the iPhone got the toughest rules.

I’ll assume for the purposes of this article that at least half of all iPad owners use 3G iPads, and that at least half of them depend on 3G to download apps. The inability to download most apps over 3G means that many of these users would buy fewer apps – either they’d be discouraged, or they’d attempt to buy an app, see the download alert, and forget to download the app later.

This is bad for the user because they aren’t able to use the apps of their choice to make the most of their iPad. It’s bad for developers because fewer apps are being purchased. And it’s bad for Apple because they’re losing money on apps that would otherwise have been purchased.

The way I see it, there’s only one proper solution: Apple needs to negotiate with characters to have the limitation removed. Considering the power that Apple has in both the smartphone and tablet markets at the moment, this is likely a demand that carriers would have no choice but to make (or risk losing the iPhone).

The issue will ultimately remain for users, who will necessarily use more data due to larger app sizes, however, but it seems that such an issue really isn’t readily avoidable.

In reality, it’s unclear how many 3G iPad owners actually depend on their device for downloading apps, versus how many owners use WiFi most of the time, and only use 3G to complete work on the go, or when travelling to surf the web and stream songs through iCloud.

In the end, we’ll just have to bide our time and wait to see what sort of solution Apple is able to devise for this.

  1. Eric Morgan says:

    I’d say 30% of iPads are 3G. Used on 3G anyway. 70% used at home on wifi. And some devs are refuting this articles premise. After compression there’s stil plenty of room. But I have no idea on that as I am not a developer. But I and the 40 I know with iPads all use wifi and 3 or 4 use 3G (and only when they’re out). they can wait to get home to download a big app. Just like now. All good games are way over 20 MB. 800-900 range. Just someone trying to make an issue to of nothing.

  2. Nour Moubayed says:

    You mean 20 MB not 20 GB in the article !

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