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Why the Hardware Home Button Needs to Go Away

By Joe Levi August 13, 2012, 11:10 am

The home button. Every modern smartphone and tablet has one. Some are physical buttons that sink into the the front of the device, others are physical buttons that stand out from the glass. Others still are soft-buttons that are capacitive, and maybe even there when you need them, but hidden when you don't.

Regardless of the way it looks, the button does the same thing across every platform: it takes you back to the home screen. Not that long ago, that button was an "action" button, not just a "start over" button.

Many of you will probably remember the "action" button that virtually every Windows Mobile device had. It was surrounded by a directional pad which let you move your "cursor" up, down, left, and right. Some d-pads were super sophisticated and had other directions (up-left, for example). Back then, when user interfaces were less finger-friendly than they are today, the center button served as "ok", "enter", or "go". They were very important.

Remember the d-pad?
The d-pad is dead! Long live the d-pad!

Today, however, the "action" button has been replaced by the "home" button. Don't get me wrong, home buttons are a good thing, but having a dedicated hardware button just to take you out of your current app back to your homescreen? No, we don't need that. It gets in the way. Why?

Physical and Capacitive Buttons Don't Mix

Try this as an experiment: get a stylus for your smartphone or tablet. Use it to press buttons on the screen, then press the home button. Spoiler alert: it doesn't work all that well, especially if you have a precision stylus.

There's a jarring disconnect from using your finger on a touch-screen, pressing buttons and typing words, then having to push a physical button on the device. It just doesn't feel right. I know, you're saying that the volume keys and power button are physical, and you're right. But both of those should be physical!

The power button is the thing you press when you're all done doing whatever you were doing on your device. You're not looking for the button, you just find it and press it. Simple, fast, easy. The way it should be.

Volume keys are used while in a telephone call, again, you're not looking at your device, you need to be able to feel them. Physical buttons are great for that purpose.

The home button? Come on, it's right there on your screen that you're looking at already. It doesn't need to be physically there for you to find just by feeling it, you can see it for goodness sake!

Soft Keys Are King

Why does the home button get so much real-estate? Why not the back button. Chances are you use the back button a whole lot more than the home button. So why doesn't it get it's own physical button?

Sure, all three major OSes have a soft button for "back", but they're in different places, and one OS in particular uses a whole bunch of the space on the screen for it. I'm frustrated that Android is copying the placement and behavior of iOS's back-button, but it's better than having a dedicated hardware button, right?

So why keep the hardware home button?

Buttons Cost Money

Physical buttons cost money to make. They need a component on the circuit board and a hole in the case to house the button that you actually press. This not only costs money, but these kinds of buttons are prone to breakage and let grit and moisture inside the case.

How much money could be saved by removing the buttons? Probably only a quarter per device, but that adds up, especially when you're talking about 10 million devices.

Lets Get Rid of It

Let's get rid of the physical home button. Either go for a capacitive area on the screen, or go with a soft button that can be re-positioned, and styled to match a theme or skin. We can save some money, keep gunk out of our phones, and make cleaner looking devices.

Who's with me? I'm not alone, Michael Fisher thinks the home button should go away. What about you? Sign the "petition" by commenting below... Or make your case why the home button is — and should always be — physical.


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