iPad 3 and the End of Buttons
Someday, the iPad and iPhone will shed even their Home button.
At least, that’s the thought behind some new features discovered in the new iOS beta. Version 4.3, which was released to developers earlier today, has several new gestures in place. They enable navigation without ever touching the Home button, letting you switch directly between applications, return to the Home screen, and bring up the app switcher.
Why do these gestures exist? Why did Apple include them in the newest beta, and not in earlier versions? Their appearance raises an important question about usability and flexibility– and, of course, about future iOS devices.
The Future of Touch Tech
When Apple first introduced “touch” technology in the third-generation iPod, I wasn’t impressed. There are a lot of problems with an interface that has no physical features. The lack of tactile feedback meant you couldn’t reliably switch tracks without looking, and the sensitivity those buttons offered meant that even brushing the iPod in your pocket could do something weird. “Locking” your iPod became essential, and (fortunately) became second-nature. Apple even gave us the Headphone Remote in order to put those buttons back on the iPod. But why should we have to do that? Why should we forego the satisfying, tactile click of buttons for the unnecessary flashiness of “touch”?
Again, not impressed. (My third-gen is the only iPod that’s EVER died on me, too.)
A few years later, though, things changed. Apple combined the fantastic design of the “standard” iPod with the touch-sensitive tech of the 3rd Gen model, a move that yielded the so-called “clickwheel“. (Here’s more on how the clickwheel works.) This change was great for several reasons:
- it solved a problem its earlier predecessor had (namely, that the physical wheel could get “loose” and move on its own)
- it improved upon its own design (by being more accurate than the former touch-based wheel)
- it allowed each element to behave as it should, with buttons used for clicking and touch used for “spinning”
- it reduced the potential for failure
- it is still as usable as the original iPod design, but saved space and maintained aesthetics
With this in mind, let’s examine the idea of a buttonless iPhone or iPad.
Does a Home Button Matter?
Despite its radical simplicity, the Home button has several uses. For one, it helps to orient the device. But it also helps to orient new users. It’s the first thing you see when you pick it up, and typically the first thing that gets pressed. In my experience, many new users think it serves as the power button as well.
The Home button is a universal “escape” from whatever you’re in. It’s centered in the display. It means “Get me out”. These are very important features, especially as the software on-screen becomes more complex, assumes more familiarity, and demands more attention. The Home button is not in software because it is not software. It is, instead, a physical “escape switch”.
However, the Home button also invokes the App Switcher, which has always struck me as a clumsy approach. After all, switching apps is a software function. It should be gesture-based. After all, everything else on the iPad is. So the idea of a gesture for switching apps is sensible (as long as it’s discoverable). It reminds me of 10/GUI, where more complex gestures are for systemwide movements (basically, the more fingers you add, the more “global” your control). Since multitasking isn’t a “newbie” feature, and one could go their whole lives without using it, it doesn’t need to be as discoverable. In fact, the proposed gesture (four-fingers slid left or right) is pretty great. . It’s sensible, and gives immediate feedback. The idea of app windows “rubberbanding” when you start to perform the move is a great visual cue.
Fine. But can we really use a buttonless iPad?
In short, not without losing a lot. Without the Home button and its orientation, a user spends more time fumbling for controls like volume, power and the headphone jack. And without a visible Home button, users might have no idea how to leave the program they’re in. There’s certainly no way of figuring it out– unless you know the secret gesture. This is contrary to the very foundation of usability: “make things visible, immediate, and understandable”.
The only real reason to ditch the Home button is aesthetic. Steve Jobs may just want the iPad to be multidirectional, or slightly smaller. But, really, does anyone care?
It’s even worse on the iPhone, where four-finger gestures are almost impossible to do successfully.
Just think of how hard it’d be to get into DFU Mode now…
What do you think of a buttonless iPhone/iPad? Would you prefer it? Would you hate it? Let me know in the comments!