There was a time when both TV’s and computer screens shared proportions. 4:3 to be exact. For those that don’t get fractions, if your screen was 40” wide, it’d have to be 30” tall to follow the 4:3 ratio.
Movies were always different. Mostly because it is trivial to stretch a white canvas much wider than it is higher across a theater hall.
To show a movie made for cinema on a TV screen required that either the top and bottom be unused (black bands above and below the image) or that the sides of the image be cropped and viewers would be happy because not a single square inch of their brand-new 60” projection screen was being wasted.
DVD’s apparently forced the issue as, out of respect to the original, they would present the movie in all its wide glory, wasting about 30% of screen real estate.
TV’s then started being manufactured in the now ubiquitous 16:9 format, which was actually proposed back in the 70’s (the HDTV standard), which was all good. The 16:9 standard was actually proposed as a compromise between the 4:3 format common at the time and the formats used by most movies, which weren’t actually 16:9 (and still arent – see wikipedia to learn more than you ever cared about this and other trivial things that are unlikely to impress the beautiful brunette at the end of the bar).
But why computers? You’re probably wondering. Especially when most work done on computers (written documents) has always followed a tall, rather than wide, format.
When in doubt, as they say, follow the money. The cost of manufacturing an LCD screen is directly proportional to its surface area. Manufacturing a 14” screen with the new 16:9 ratio costs about 10% less than manufacturing the same screen using the 4:3 proportions (you get roughly 10% less pixels on a wide screen than on a 4:3 screen with the same diagonal dimension).
That’s how we ended up doing most of our work in wide-format screens (and wasting about 30% of their useful area because most of what people do in computers, other than watching movies, is better suited to taller display areas, and that’s without counting the space lost to tool bars and “ribbons” running ACROSS the screen as opposed to from top to bottom on one side). Utilitarian design is a dead art, me thinks.
I can just picture someone pointing this out at a board meeting and asking “But what will users say?” and just as easily I can picture someone else saying “They’ll love it… because we say so.”