Is the physical home button redundant? [Editorial]

Back in 2007 Apple unveiled the long-awaited iPhone to the world. It was a revelation. So much so, it was given the nickname “Jesus Phone”. Its sleek, rounded and comfortable design was the envy of every other manufacturer. At the time, smartphones either had full QWERTY keyboards crammed in to small spaces or crappy resistive touch screens that required a stylus to work (no thanks to the fiddly operating systems). That’s not all though. Despite having big touch screens, they still had a whole array of physical buttons for all sorts of commands ranging from going back a step, opening the Start menu (Windows Mobile) or making calls. Apple’s iPhone only had one button on the front face: the home button. In 2007 that was unheard of.

The iPhone’s front panel was beautifully minimalist. It was a screen, a perfectly centralized earpiece and a home button. Thanks to a revolutionary user interface, everything could be done by gesture on screen. The home button simply served to take you back to the home screen. As iOS became more advanced, the button became more useful, adding multitasking, Spotlight and Voice Control (now Siri) to its repertoire. But, as Apple kept finding new ways to utilize its patented home button, other manufacturers were finding ways of getting rid of physical buttons altogether.

The Galaxy Nexus (launched 2011) featured virtual onscreen buttons which only appeared when necessary. Nokia’s Meego running N9 handset created new gestures and a much more simplistic UI and had nothing but screen up front. In fact, there aren’t many handsets being launched these days with physical buttons on the front. And yet, Apple is yet to hop on the bandwagon.

Simply put: I think iOS needs re-inventing to make controlling it much more intuitive, without requiring the use of the archaic home button. This was one area that the ill-fated webOS platform got it absolutely bang on the money. Instead of a button, there was a touch sensitive part below the screen which responded to various gestures. Such as: swiping up, left and right. These would be used to go back, open the app drawer, multitask etc. It was all very intuitive. No pressing anything, and it felt completely natural. My first and last webOS device was the dead-on-arrival Pre 3, back in 2011, and the gesture controls make current iPhone actions seem dinosaurish.

It’s a slightly different story with the iPad. It has multitouch gesture support, giving users the option to go home, or switch apps with four finger pinch or swipe. It’s been this way since iOS 5 hit the scene. Which begs the question: why have a home button on the iPad? If it wasn’t for the long press activating Siri, it would be completely useless. Being voice activated, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a way to activate Siri just by using a spoken command. “Siri, wake up!” for instance.

With the iPhone’s display being so much smaller than an iPad’s, to suggest integrating the same four-finger gestures on to that would be foolishness. There’s simply not enough room to perform a four finger swipe. But, we can already perform two-digit pinch-to-zoom actions on there, so why not create a host of new two-digit swipes. Or, take onboard the Pre method of building in a touch sensitive component below the display. Or, take Samsung’s approach and create some gestures using the side of your hand, or make use of the accelerometer.

My point is: buttons are old school now, and not in a good way. Apple’s create some really awesome gesture based controls for Mac in the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad. Although both are clickable, neither have individual buttons. And, if you have your System Preferences set up to do so, you don’t need to physically click them at all. It’s an added option. Why not transfer the same ethos in to iDevices. We all know Apple’s designers and engineers love to push themselves to the limit. How about starting development on new products with the challenge of not having a home button. Start from scratch. Rethink iOS and the way it’s controlled. With Siri likely becoming a much more necessary feature in future, we shouldn’t have to rely on our own pressings and fumblings anymore.

A good starting point would be replacing it with a capacitive button, at the very least. But, if anyone can create a button-less phone, Apple can.

What do you think? Does Apple need to change its design and get rid of the ever-present home button? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or tweet me: @TiP_Cam.

 

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  • imoneymyke

    i would like the iphone.ipod touch more if that button could also be used as a cursor

  • AudieFitradi

    Hi Cam,
    I was a galaxy tab user for 8 months and one most missed feature was a physical home button.why? When the screen is on an off position, the home button on an ipad is very useful to quickly turn the screen on to check whether i have any new sms or email notification.
    Clicking a standby button on the side of the tablet was not convenient at all.
    That’s my take, based on my experience.
    Think about how many times you actually hit that physical home button while u have it on a desk? Surprisingly, i think its quite a lot.
    :)

  • MaeganBabcock

    I happen to like the physical home button on my iPhone.  I hope Apple never gets rid of it or makes it a capacative one.

  • Appleisascoolasasparagus

    I giggle at Cam’s statements about how ‘if anyone can do it, apple can’…considering apple hasnt made anything intuitive or revolutionary in a long while. Making a buttonless phone or a capacitive home button is just another step in following the path of other developers and other systems. Even windows phone is becoming more fluid and intuitive that apple.

  • Appleisascoolasasparagus

    @AudieFitradi wouldnt it be easier to do as some other tech options are…just hit the screen. Even in standby mode, you just tap the screen to turn it on in the same way pressing a home button would. or what about things like flipping your phone over or shaking it or another feat of accelerometer goodness to turn it on. A physical button is useful, but only because we become accustomed to it. If you had to start your car by pressing hitting the gas pedal twice rapidly, you would complain about going to that to a key. Not because its easier or more convenient, but because you are not used to it.