Imagine There's No Button…
For years now, there have been rumblings that Apple may do away with a physical Home button in the next iPhone. So far, of course, this hasn't happened--that small circle has remained in place, and even been made to double as a fingerprint reader. For most users, this is just as well; the thought of an iPhone with no Home button causes discomfort and an immediate, negative reaction. As I sometimes like to do, such as with my article about how a single-port Macbook could be a good idea, I want to posit that a radical change in design might be a good, or at least survivable, idea. Specifically, I want to convince you that losing the Home button is not the end of the world. In fact, it could be a great thing.
What's the Point?
Why am I even bothering, though? Why not leave well enough alone, and let the Home button stay? I can think of three reasons doing away with the physical button could be helpful.
First, it's a moving part. The problem with moving parts is just that--they move. There's a reason flash storage is better than mechanical, or that the first sign of ware on a laptop is often the hinge on the screen, or that headphone cables so often break near one end (where they flex against an unmoving part). Movement, particularly the repeated movement of something like a button as often used as the Home button, causes wear. Wear, in turn, causes damage. Apple has gotten very good at making reliable Home buttons that will last the duration of your device's useful life, but that's not to say these buttons can't break. Plus, removing this moving part would make assembly simpler, and would let iPhones be even thinner. Remember when Apple came out with their MacBook in 2015, which had a Taptic-based trackpad instead of one that physically moved? This let the laptop be Apple's thinnest ever, thanks in part to the lack of a trackpad that had to move to be clicked.
Removing this button may also help Apple increase water and dust protection. What's better at keeping out water: a button that moves in and out, or no opening at all? Of course, no opening will protect against water much better. Yes, there are more obvious water problems in the speaker grill and charge/audio ports, but doing away with the Home button is just one less avenue for foreign debris to come in and ruin your iPhone's day.
Finally, there are people with motor impairments to consider. For most of us, pressing the Home button is so easy we don't even think about it, but some people struggle with the task. That is, after all, part of the reason Assistive Touch was invented. What if Apple used Force Touch in place of a physical button, complete with the ability to adjust how hard you have to press? Users could taylor the button's resistance to best suit their needs, or disable it altogether if they wanted to.
Lack of movement, no opening for debris, and an easier time for those with motor problems are the advantages I can see. The disadvantages--the loss of the ways we currently use our Home buttons--are on the other side of the scale. Now, let's see if I can make them weigh less than they seem to at the moment. Perhaps I can even get the advantages to weigh more? Let's find out!
What Is It Good For?
First, let's briefly look at what the Home button does right now. I'll assume an iPhone 6 or 6s for this article.
- Home: this is the obvious one. Press the Home button, and you return to your Home screen from wherever you are. On a related note, the button will close Siri and return you to the app you were using before you brought Siri up.
- Accessibility shortcut: this is the most useful feature for those who rely on any of Apple's accessibility technologies. Hit the Home button three times, and you can toggle any or all of the accessibility features you want.
- App Switcher: press Home twice, and you get a list of all the apps you've recently opened. This is necessary to switch apps without needing to return home, or force-quit an app that is misbehaving.
- Reachability: new in iOS8 and only for the iPhone 6 and newer, this feature essentially shrinks the entire screen by half. It's useful for reaching content on the larger 6 or 6 Plus display when using one hand, and is activated by touching--but not pressing--the Home button twice.
- Siri: ever since the iPhone 4s, a long press of the Home button has brought up Siri. In iOS8, this feature was extended so that Siri could use the Home button as a push-to-talk switch, listening as long as the button was pressed, never mind any pauses you might make.
- Screenshots and Resetting: pressing the Home and Power buttons together will snap a screenshot of whatever you're doing. Leave the two buttons pressed for about twelve seconds, and you will force your device to reset.
Six functions (seven, technically, but the last is an extension of the sixth). If we can come up with alternatives that are just as convenient, then losing the Home button wouldn't be an issue, wouldn't you agree? Let's see if I can provide those alternatives.
Removing the Task Master
You currently go to your Home screen, and access your recently opened apps, with the Home button. Without it, how would you do any of those? The answer is simple: you already do. On the iPad, multi-tasking gestures have existed for years that let you use four or five fingers to switch apps, open the App Switcher, and get to your Home screen. On the iPad, the Home button could vanish tomorrow and most users would be just fine. Of course, such a feature has never come to the iPhone… Except it actually has.
The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are both capable of sensing how hard you press on the screen. This allows a whole range of secondary gestures, and Apple has only begun to take advantage of that idea. If you press hard on the left edge of your screen and swipe to the right, you can either switch to the app you were last in, or open the App Switcher. While you can't currently use this feature to get to your Home screen, it's very easy to imagine such an addition in a future version of iOS. Perhaps pressing firmly on the right edge and swiping left would do the job, for instance. The point is, there are already two ways of taking care of these aspects of the Home button. (Yes, I know this feature is currently not usable with VoiceOver on, but that's an easily-fixed software problem.)
No Touching the Touch ID?
Another landmark feature of iPhones and iPads in recent years is Touch ID. You just touch the Home button, leave your finger there for a second while the system reads your fingerprint, and--if iOS recognizes your print--your iDevice is unlocked. Touch ID is also used to authenticate Apple Pay purchases and takes the place of passwords in many apps and services. It's vital that this continue to work, and with no Home button, where is the fingerprint reader supposed to go?
There are a couple ways Apple could address this. The first is to follow the trend of modern Android phones and put the reader on the back of the phone. You pick it up, and so long as any recognized finger is on the sensor as you do so, your phone is unlocked and ready for you by the time you get it into position to use. Or, Apple could use this ultrasonic sensor, hidden behind glass. This solution lets the fingerprint reading surface be tucked under glass, allowing for a virtual Home button that exists only as a region on your screen. With Taptic feedback making this button feel real when you press it, and the phone able to sense how hard you're pressing on it, the virtual button could be almost as real as a real one. Yes, it would lack the tactile feedback of an actual button and thus be harder to locate by touch, but who's to say Apple could not simply extend the field across the bottom of the whole phone? You could press anywhere on that strip under your screen, and the place you press is your Home button. There'd be no need for precisely locating anything.
And Toggling Accessibility?
Simple: as before, the answer here is in gestures. Android has long had ways of enabling accessibility features through things like holding two fingers on the screen or, long ago, drawing a box. There are plenty of unused gestures in iOS, particularly when VoiceOver or Zoom are off, which could be used for this purpose. A three-finger scrub, swiping two fingers from one edge to the other, or a single finger quadruple tap are three that come to my mind immediately. Best of all, there's no reason Apple couldn't support two or three gestures, with a different feature assigned to each. If you need VoiceOver, Zoom, and Guided Access, simply set each one to its own gesture. No more selecting from a menu of options when you triple click the Home button, just tap/swipe and you're done.
Siri is currently invoked via the Home button, and there'd be no way to do that if the button were gone, right? Wrong! In iOS8, Apple introduced "Hey Siri", a feature that lets you speak the afore mentioned phrase to call up Siri. So long as your iThing is plugged in, this will work, even if your device is locked.
Starting with the iPhone 6s series, the restriction that your phone be connected to power has been removed. Shout "hey Siri", and your phone is ready to go. If, for some reason, you needed to bring up Siri without speaking the magic words, it seems that pressing the virtual Home button would work well enough. Or, perhaps a volume button could do it? If you're opening Siri, though, you and it are about to talk, so it only makes sense that the primary way you start that conversation is with your voice. After all, there's no way to use Siri silently, so why would you need a silent way of starting to use it?
Turning It Off and On Again
Screenshots and resets are the last use of the Home button I haven't yet addressed. The answer here is quite simple: use other buttons. I'm not proposing a removal of all the buttons on the iPhone, only the Home button. Why not make the screenshot command be the Power button with either volume button? A reset could be done by pressing Power three times quickly, or holding it with a volume button similar to the current system. It's rare that you have to do a Home/Power reset on your iOS devices, and a normal power-off is already done with no help from the Home button. Using volume and power together seems a very workable solution. In fact, being on opposite sides of the iPhone (on the 6 or newer), such commands would be easier to manage and could be done one-handed.
Once More: Imagine There's No Button…
I started this post by asking if losing the Home button would be survivable. Having read it, do you now think it could, in fact, work? Or would an iPhone with no Home button simply be something you'd never buy? If so, why? What did I overlook, or not address thoroughly enough? Let me know.