A Requiem for the iPhone's Home Button
In the beginning, nobody knew how to use an iPhone. That informed everything about the device’s design: The green felt in Game Center communicated fun and gambling, the messily ripped paper at the top of the Notes app made clear that this was where you scribbled away. The music app was called iPod, not Music, because Apple deemed that more easily understood. Using an iPhone was like bowling with bumpers—no one told you exactly what to do, but you couldn’t screw up too badly either.
The home button was the most powerful tool in every new iPhone owner’s arsenal. You didn’t have to understand the inner workings of the app switcher to make use of all the stuff on your iPhone, or figure out how share sheets worked just to copy and paste something. The home button was the iPhone’s ripcord: If you got lost in an app, or your phone suddenly froze (as it was, and is, prone to do), you could just mash the round button below the screen and you’d be airlifted back to safety. “On the front, there’s only one button,” Jobs said at the iPhone’s original launch. “We call it the home button. Takes you home from wherever you are. And that’s it.”
It’s a remarkable statement of confidence, then, that Apple appears set to expunge the home button from its next smartphone. On Tuesday, at the Steve Jobs Theater on Apple’s brand new spaceship of a campus, Tim Cook will reportedly unveil an iPhone with screen from head to toe and no home button to be found. Instead, as Bloomberg reported, the iPhone will have “a thin, software bar” across the bottom of the screen. It’ll have a gesture for opening the app switcher, and another for returning to the home screen.
This change follows Apple’s iOS 7 redesign, in which Jony Ive and the Funky Bunch removed most of the iPhone’s skeuomorphism and helpful interface elements. They believed you knew how to use a smartphone, and could probably figure out how to slide to unlock your phone without the aid of a virtual track and a huge arrow pointing in the correct direction. Now, Apple seems confident you know how gestures work, or at least that you’ve been using an iPhone long enough that this one change won’t kill you.
Of course, Apple’s largely right. Most people do know how to use an iPhone, in a basic sense, which gives Apple some freedom to teach new behavior. Ditching the home button means one less breakable part to every phone, and more room for more screen. There will probably be commercials about the new home not-button, maybe even a popup when you first get the device. You’ll figure it out.
But there’s still something distinctly hostile about it, design and features trumping ease of use and peace of mind. Most people still don’t know how to use iPhones to their full potential. We get tired looking through a dozen haphazardly organized icons in Control Center. We struggle to learn the subtle differences between 3D Touch and long-press and a simple tap. We never remember what we can and can’t ask Siri. Did you use the four-finger gesture to close apps, or the 3D-touch swipe to switch between them? Of course not. No matter Apple’s pithy taglines, iPhones aren’t easy or obvious to use—certainly not without a home button. If anything, their incredible versatility and power has made them only more complex over time.
Ask any Android user what it’s like when the screen freezes, and you’re either stuck waiting for something to happen or pressing the power button to reboot your phone and be done with it. Or when you’re in a full-screen app and can’t figure out how to leave it. These are the little things that critics like to say separate iOS from Android in the first place, the “you already know how to use it” believers. The reason you already know how to use it? There’s a button, right there in front of your face.
OK, sure, so the iPhone 7’s home “button” wasn’t really a button at all. It was just a dedicated spot on the bottom of the device where Apple’s haptic feedback engines made you think you were clicking a button when you pressed it. And when the phone froze, it did too. There was still something soothing to pressing the button underneath a frozen GarageBand, hoping it would eventually take you home. Maybe it was just a placebo, like pressing the Close Door button in an elevator even when you know full well it won’t actually Close Door any faster. It still helped you feel in control, rather than existing at the mercy of software.
Fighting for a button on a smartphone is like hoping for a stick shift in a self-driving car—the future is heading unstoppably in another direction. But it’s worth wondering, as the button heads toward the great switchboard in the sky, whether the iPhone’s good enough, and whether we’re good enough at using the iPhone, to not need a parachute just in case.