Windows Phone users might start getting familiar with onscreen buttons when version 8.1 hits next year, according to a report from The Verge. If Microsoft goes through with killing off the requirement for a hardware back button, the company could replace that with an onscreen version. The Redmond company might actually drop hardware requirements for back, Start and search buttons, and instead use a Nexus-like arrangement in order to reduce production costs for OEMs.
"Any potential devices without hardware buttons will have buttons on the screen," sources told The Verge said, adding that Microsoft is currently testing the functionality to see whether apps and other aspects of Windows Phone still work.
Microsoft supposedly has a master plan to take over the low-end market; the arrival of onscreen buttons is the company's way of encouraging OEMs to develop cheaper handsets. Sources told The Verge that Microsoft is targeting mobile operators who license reference designs from Qualcomm and create low-cost devices. A lower initial cost to manufacture Windows Phone 8.1 handsets could make it easier for companies to hop into Microsoft's mobile ecosystem.
Onscreen buttons are an acquired taste; our own staff is conflicted in the Android space. Personally, I have no issue with them, and actually prefer it because the overall screen real estate is larger when watching videos, playing games, etc. How onscreen buttons will translate over to the Windows Phone ecosystem remains to be seen. At least the back button isn't disappearing completely.