Before the release of Apple’s newest tablet, when we were all still calling it the “iPad 3,” there was the usual tempest of rumor and speculation regarding the new device. Some of this scuttlebutt, like the Retina display, proved to be true. Other unverified claims, like quad-core processors and an 8MP camera, didn’t.
My favorite rumor at the time, because I didn’t care much about either tablet cameras or CPU core count, was that Apple would be eliminating the home button on its new iPad, leaving a clean uninterrupted bezel all the way around the screen. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a rumor, it was a less outlandish claim than others we were hearing, and given Apple’s increasing bent toward gesture-based UI interaction in iOS and OSX, it made sense. Had I been a betting man, I’d have put a silver dollar on it.
If only this image were the result of something more exciting than using landscape mode.
The reason that the button-nixing rumor was my favorite: it wasn’t just another spec bump or marginally-useful new feature; it carried the promise that Apple was finally rethinking a core element of iOS’ stodgy interface. And if it was reworking its UI, other companies wouldn’t be far behind with their own new ideas. Frankly, I hoped Apple would steal a page from Palm’s book.
Few people understand the failings of Palm’s webOS more intimately than its users, so I’m fully aware how perfect Palm’s product is not. But webOS’s constant struggles and spectacular near-demise often divert attention from the fact that some of its UI ideas were truly amazing. People always point to the cards paradigm or Synergy or Just Type as examples, but one of the best things Palm ever did was one of the least-discussed, because it happened over the course of an incremental upgrade: it removed the home button.
The nixing of the circular home key did two things for the Pre Plus: it streamlined the appearance of the device, drawing another visual distinction between it and the iPhone, and it further encouraged use of the gesture area below the screen. Users could no longer fall back on the old behavior of pressing a button below the display to return to card view; they needed to use the up-swipe gesture, one of the hallmarks of the webOS experience.
Like any OS-specific gesture or function, once you get used to it, it’s hard to get out of the habit. When weaning myself off webOS, I frequently found myself fruitlessly “up-swiping” on the bezels of my Galaxy Nexus and Samsung Focus. Not only that, but the other options feel clunky by comparison. When you’re spending the majority of your on-device time swiping and scrolling on the wide expanse of touch screen, it’s very limiting to then have to find and tap a specific, small target such as a button. A button you can’t even pinch-to-zoom. That kind of mental shift is manageable on devices with capacitive keys, but hardware buttons start to feel absurd after a while.
Come on, guys.
That tactile shift, from smooth glass and fluid motions to clunky thumb-mashing on a clicky contact, diminishes the experience. It makes it less “magical and revolutionary” and more “utilitarian and old-school.”
All of the important functions of a physical home button can be performed as well or better by gestures. Blackberry’s PlayBook may not be the best device out there, but it features an awesome way to wake up the device: instead of hunting for that lock button up top, a user just drags his finger across the front of the screen, bezel-to-bezel. The edge detection prevents false wakeups by requiring both sides of the display to register a bezel event, and the experience is much more pleasant and futuristic than the pedestrian act of pressing a button.
When Apple started incorporating multi-touch gestures into iOS, I was skeptical. I shared the opinion of our own Jaime Rivera that Apple’s gestures were more awkward on the mobile devices than on Apple’s computers. I still do: using four or five fingers to execute a function on a mobile device is cumbersome.
Attack of the clumsy gesture paw!
You know what surprised me, though? After a while using gestures in iOS so I could comment on them in a previous editorial, I started getting used to them. Soon, I was reverse-five-finger-pinching back to the home screen, and four-finger-Miles-O’Briening up into the task switcher like a champ (and if you get that last reference without Googling, you can be my friend). While I didn’t, and still don’t, think it’s the best way to implement gestures, I know it feels a lot better than messing with a button.
For now, maybe the best we can hope for is Android’s approach: Ice Cream Sandwich makes dedicated function keys superfluous, but still allows them for backwards compatibility, or for when OEMs want to do something different. But as good as ICS is compared to Gingerbread, it’s got a long way to go before it makes the leap from “usable” to “elegant.” And the same holds true for iOS. Number-three contender Windows Phone’s elegance shines through in other areas, but it too is still mired in button-paradigm thinking, with its unchanging row of keys at the bottom.
A great user interface makes the operator feel more like he’s dancing with the software than manipulating it. I say that as a guy who’s no good at dancing, so you know I mean it. But just like it’s tough to dance in construction boots, it’s hard to design a truly excellent UI while still chained down by “button thinking.”
It’s had a great run, folks, but the home button needs to go into retirement. It’s the only way mobile UI design can take the next leap forward.