→ The Home button is fading away


Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple is preparing three new iPhones for debut next month. One of the models, a new high-end device, packs in enough changes to make it one of the biggest iPhone updates in the product’s decade-long history. With a crisper screen that takes up nearly the entire front, Apple has tested the complete removal of the home button — even a digital one — in favor of new gesture controls for tasks like going to the main app grid and opening multitasking, according to the people and the images.


Across the bottom of the screen there’s a thin, software bar in lieu of the home button. A user can drag it up to the middle of the screen to open the phone. When inside an app, a similar gesture starts multitasking. From here, users can continue to flick upwards to close the app and go back to the home screen. An animation in testing sucks the app back into its icon. The multitasking interface has been redesigned to appear like a series of standalone cards that can be swiped through, versus the stack of cards on current iPhones, the images show.

I really don’t like that the Home button is becoming a software feature instead of remaining a hardware control. I’m sure that Apple’s famously tight integration between hardware and software will create a reliable user experience in general, but software controls can become unresponsive and unreliable in case something goes wrong software-wise (maybe due to a misbehaving third-party app).

This leaving behind the Home button as a physical, mechanical control also strikes me as a step back with regard to accessibility. When I first handled the iPhone 7 in an Apple Store, I was pretty underwhelmed by the new force-touch Home button, no matter the intensity setting. It felt weak and weird. If the new deluxe iPhone even lacks a hardware area to use as a button and goes all-in with the software, I’d really like to know what people with sight disabilities think of this new direction.

Of course, a phone without a physical Home button is nothing new. My favourite implementation has to be Palm’s: the ‘Gesture area’ on the Palm Pre phone family was well designed (see this bit from CES 2009, where Matías Duarte is demoing the Pre’s UI and gestures) and maintains a great reliability and responsiveness. In a few instances where my Palm Pre 2 had a software hiccup, I was still able to go back and quit the app that was acting up, and retain control of the smartphone. I think that an iPhone with a similar gesture area (Apple could have called it Touch Area) would have been more interesting and user friendly; but hey, apparently ‘big, bezel-less display’ is the priority now.

I’m also curious to know the reasoning behind introducing a new user interaction model on the new deluxe iPhone, while presumably keeping the old one on the other ‘regular’ iPhones that will be introduced along with it in a few days. We’ll have:

  • The new deluxe iPhone with these new software gestures (and probably the new facial recognition feature instead of Touch ID).
  • The iPhone 7, 7s, 7 Plus, and 7s Plus with the force-touch Home button and Touch ID.
  • The iPhone SE with a physical Home button, Touch ID, but without 3D Touch.

I guess it’s going to be an interesting transition period.

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