What Is the The Fate of the iPhone’s Home Button?

As rumors abound that Apple is moving towards an inevitable removal of the beloved home button, a second possibility crops up in the form of a capacitive sensor that replaces the woes of a physical button.

Today we’ll discuss why the home button is a central element of the iOS experience and whether or not it can be replaced with something such as a gesture or touch-sensitive switch without a dramatic reduction in usability.

Simple is Better

Few deny that Apple’s line of multitouch products have a beautifully simple and streamlined design. In just a few years, the iPhone has surely become one of the most replicated cell phone designs of all time.

Despite endless pleas for physical keyboards from Blackberry fans, one of the things that Apple really got right on the iPhone right from the start was a strong emphasis on the gorgeous interactive display. The key way that this is accomplished is through the lack of any distractions on the face of the device; there’s only a screen and a single button. Notice that Apple has been a big fan of simple form factors like this for quite some time. In its day, the Newton was fairly minimal and contained little else on its face than a screen.


The Newton and the iPhone

The single button format has now been carried out across the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, but has recently become a hotly debated topic. Just to give you an idea of the scope of the debate, let’s go over both the pros and cons of our friend the home button.

Home Button: Pros

There are plenty of really strong arguments in favor of keeping the home button right where it is. The simplest and strongest of these is that it makes Apple’s iOS devices extremely intuitive. Almost any person on the planet, whether they’re four or ninety years old, can figure out how to make an iPhone or iPad work in a few seconds or less.


Almost anyone can use an iPad with little or no instruction

All you see when you pick up an iOS device is a big screen and a button. Touching the screen gets you nowhere so there’s only one other option! Pressing the button brings the screen alive where you find instructions for unlocking the device.

From here, things stay as simple as humanly possible. You see a grid of items and when you want to try one of them, you reach out and touch it. This brings up a new problem though, how to go back. Everything in the app is controlled via on-screen controls so once again the user only has one logical action to try: pressing the home button. Again this does exactly as intended and brings the user back to where they started.

You might think this progression is so obvious that it doesn’t even merit discussion, but in reality this is a carefully and ingeniously crafted experience and is a driving force behind these devices reaching a point of saturation far beyond tech nerds.

The argument that many usability fans are currently making is that if Apple takes this button away, they’ll take with it all of the ease-of-use currently associated with the devices. Sure, a four-finger gesture is a fine way for power users to exit an app, but what about new users? Suddenly the formerly intuitive experience would now require a guided walk-through.

Would Apple Really Do This?

I happen to strongly agree with this argument. The iPhone might look better without a button on the front, but it certainly would not be as user-friendly. However, this idea isn’t without flaws.

The main problem with this argument is the assumption that, upon removing the home button, Apple wouldn’t replace it with something equally intuitive. We’ve heard they’re considering complicated gestures, but that doesn’t meant there won’t also be something just as good or even better than the home button.

Apple tends to hide lots of tricks up their sleeve and I wouldn’t bet any substantial amount of money on them ruining the experience of their current favorite cash cow because of a button!

Home Button: Cons

The downside of the home button is of course that it must be physically pressed and is therefore prone to failure. Further, it’s possible that without the necessity of this button, Apple could significantly reduce the size of both the iPhone and iPad simply by cutting down on the outer bezel.

You have to wonder if this is enough incentive for Apple to make the bold move of eliminating the button. If you think about where Apple’s design trends are headed, it almost makes sense.

Apple’s interface designs in OS X aren’t becoming more elaborate, instead the interfaces are disappearing! Apps like QuickTime are attractive in their attempt to be absolutely borderless. Similarly, iOS devices are already nearly all-screen, how much of a leap would it be to have an iPhone that really is only as tall and wide as the screen?

Will the Home Button Become Capacitive?

To make this conversation even more interesting, Tech Crunch has recently posted images of a “potentially leaked” (meaning likely fake) iPod Touch with a capacitive home button. Real or not, these images do bring some interesting ideas for how to eliminate on of the main cons of the home button while retaining most of the pros.


A capacitive home button would respond to touch

One thing that immediately comes to mind is the 3rd generation iPod with its capacitive button strip along the top. These were short-lived and quickly dropped in favor of the click wheel design.


The 3rd generation iPod had a strip of capacitive buttons

Looking back, these little buttons weren’t my favorite, especially when compared with the solid feel of the current iPhone home button. It’s interesting to note that Apple didn’t stick with this design for long. However, they have implemented and sustained similar buttons on cinema displays.

What Do You Think?

To be honest, I don’t see Apple ditching the home button altogether any time soon. They might surprise me with a new and better system, but until we figure out what that would look like, the simply usability of the one-button format is going to be nigh upon unbeatable. A capacitive button is a possible next step, but I’m not sure if the fail rate on the physical buttons is so high that Apple sees this as a necessary route.

What do you think? Will we begin to see an evolution of the home button into something more tech savvy or possibly even an outright removal of it altogether? Tell us both what you prefer and what route you expect Apple to take.

Photo Credits: Blake Patterson, Paul Emerson, Grace and TechCrunch.