Apple’s penchant for minimalism is well known, and it’s a motif that frequently reveals itself in the history of Apple’s design. Most of Apple’s products have followed this progression of minimalism since their introduction. The iMac itself has evolved dramatically in this fashion since it was first released. However, some of Apple’s products have changed little in this respect. One has been the iPhone. Perhaps it is because the device is already so minimalistic that no major changes have been made. The construction materials are what have changed most. The first iPhone was aluminum, preceeding generations plastic, and the last two, metal and glass. These changes have mainly occurred at the behest of design aesthetics. However, I believe that we must be on the cusp of another design move to minimalism that has more to do with function than with aesthetics: the removal of the home button.
The home button has been always been a part of the mobile Apple device, be it the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Its iconic, but its function is quickly becoming obsolete. Initially, it was used to jump to the home screen and finalize app editing. Then, it was used to multitask. Now, at least on one iDevice, it has become unnecessary.
With the new 4 or 5-finger gestures on the iPad, the home button is no longer a necessity. Instead of clumsily double-tapping to bring up the multitasking bar, you can simply swipe up, or, if you prefer, swipe left or right to swap between applications directly. To return home, simply 4 or 5-finger pinch. The last button-centric feature remaining is finalizing apps after deleting or moving them. This action can be accomplished by simply pulling down the notification bar.
With the addition of these new gestures, the iPad’s home button has been made irrelevant, and now that we have had a glimpse of the invitation for the March 7th iPad 3 event, a case could be made that Apple has already removed it. We will find out soon enough.
But aside from the iPad, the smaller iPhone and iPod Touch present a unique challenge that Apple will have to respond to. All of Apple’s iDevices share the same purposeful design language. I cannot imagine that Apple would allow a buttonless iPad to create a design inconsistency in regard to the iPhone. The simple answer would be to go the Ice Cream Sandwich route and draw soft keys in iOS, but that wouldn’t be a very Apple thing to do. Despite incorporating certain Android features such as the notification drawer, Apple still believes that it thinks different.
Instead, it seems clear to me that iOS for iPhone will come to support more advanced gestures. Perhaps the gestures wouldn’t be performed on-screen as they are with the iPad, but rather on a region slightly below the screen. I recall some conjecture of this before the announcement of the last iPhone. The war on hard keys began with the introduction of iOS, and since the debut of the iPhone, the goal has been to replicate the functionality of hard keys with the simplicity and grace of a smooth surface. This idea has not been limited to Apple mobile division, but has also been carried over to Apple’s PC devices. Laptop trackpads that used to have separate buttons and touch spaces have merged into one, and with the addition of multi-finger gestures in Lion, we will see the Magic Trackpad replace the Magic Mouse as the go-to pointing device.
The home button is very much a vestige of technology’s past; a relic from the time when hard-button presses were the only way of operating a cellphone. But to Apple, past is anathema, and the removal of a button is a step toward the post-pc future.