The iPad, note home button at botton of screen (image from Apple)
There are rumors that the upcoming versions of the Apple iPad and iPhone will rid themselves of one of their few physical buttons: the home button. See, e.g., The L.A. Times. The home button was a button located at the bottom of the iPad and iPhone that a user could press to exit out of whatever application that user was in to return to the home screen. It was sort of like a no-questions-asked, get-me-out-of-here kind of switch that you could press when you needed to, say, check your email or make a phone call. Analysts have suggested that the home button’s functions will be replaced by a variety of “multi-touch” gestures, which will allow a user to swipe a certain number of fingers across the iPhone or iPad’s screen to return to the home screen, or to switch applications.
Apple’s rumored decision to get rid of this physical button on the iPad and iPhone is not an isolated choice, either by Apple or by other manufacturers. Apple has eliminated physical buttons for controlling music playback on the most recent version of the iPod Nano. Motorola’s much-hyped new tablet PC, the Motorola Xoom, has no physical buttons. But Apple’s rumored decision underscores this movement.
The Motorola Xoom (image from cnet)
While touchscreen interfaces can be extremely useful, and should certainly be featured in devices such as tablet computers and cell phones, I think that the designers of these products must be careful not to forget the utility of physical buttons. In some situations, the absence of a physical button is not a big deal. Losing a physical button to change from one song to another on an mp3 player is not really a problem when you can more easily select the songs via a touchscreen interface.
On the other hand, there are some situations where I think that manufacturers get rid of physical buttons in a gimmicky way that takes away more from the product than it adds. Take, for example, the iPod Nano. The iPod nano now has no physical buttons for controlling music playback; rather, it is controlled via a touchscreen interface. Apple markets the Nano as a device that runners will use to listen to music on while they run. However, if you want to change a song while you run, or pause your iPod, there are no physical buttons that you can quickly tap. Rather, you need to press a button on the touch screen, which will almost always require looking at the screen and pressing the button. With a tiny screen, if you are running at a reasonable pace, you are likely going to have to slow down or stop to see what you are doing. The iPod Nano also has a feature that allows the user to draw “gestures” on the screen to change to different features on the iPod, such as changing from viewing artists to viewing album titles. Unfortunately, this means that if you are running, and you are trying to press the button to “pause” the music, you might accidentally send yourself into some other screen you don’t want to be in, making it even harder to pause the song you’re listening to.
The iPod Nano (image from Apple)
Another example of poor use of touchscreen-like technology is the Garmin Forerunner 405. The Forerunner 405 is a GPS running watch. The 405 is one of a series of Forerunner watch models that records distance and pace run. However, unlike most of the Forerunner models, many of the Forerunner 405′s in-run controls are accessible not by physical buttons, but by a touchscreen bezel that surrounds the face of watch. The bezel is like the earlier models of the iPod; you run your finger along it to highlight different options, and then press a physical button to choose the option. While using a bezel is fine for sitting around on the couch, it’s a pain in the butt to do while you run. Additionally, some have reported that the Forerunner 405′s bezel does not react well to sweat. And, well, sweat and running go together like cherries and cherry pie.
The Garmin Forerunner 405 (image from Garmin)
The iPod Nano and the Garmin Forerunner 405 are two examples of where touchscreen and touchscreen-like technology can become a bit gimmicky instead of useful. To an extent, I see designers thinking of how many “features” they can list on a bullet-point list of product features, as opposed to actually considering what their product is going to be used for, and which features will aid that use.
Will the loss of the home button on the iPad and iPhone be a net gain? It’s hard to say. I think that, on the plus side, getting rid of the home button will decrease wasted space on the iPhone and iPad, allowing the screen to cover nearly the entire front of the device. This could either mean a larger screen or a smaller device. On the other hand, the loss of the home button takes away a user’s no-questions-asked, get-me-out-of-here button. If an application slows to a crawl due to a system bug or crash, thus slowing the entire operating system, a user cannot simply press the home button and know that the “quit” command has been transmitted to the operating system. Instead, the user will have to rely on gestures that he or she will need to draw on the screen, and may not be registered if the device is lethargic and unresponsive. Moreover, users with little experience at using the operating system will have no button to fall back on when they cannot remember how to do the gesture they need to return to the home screen. Additionally, if Apple really wants to implement gestures that can allow users to switch applications or return to the home screen without pressing any buttons, Apple can do so while still leaving the home screen button as a “last resort.”
In sum, if Apple is indeed ridding the iPad and iPhone of the home screen button, that choice underscores a trend of many electronics-makers to move toward touch screen interfaces. While Apple’s rumored choice may turn out to be a net positive, it also could be yet another example of an electronics designer swapping physical buttons for touchscreens as a gimmick. We’ll see what happens.