The iPhone home button

There is news today that Apple’s next-generation iPhone—the rumored high-end one—is not only going to remove the physical home button (everyone has assumed that for a while), but it will also not replace it with an on-screen simulacrum (people like me have expected a circle icon to act as the home button). The plan, apparently, is to kill the home button entirely, and replace it with a dock of icons, like the iOS 11 betas have on the iPad. That is a bit surprising to me. Whether it is true or not, this news made me want to pause a minute and reflect on how brilliant Apple’s home button was.

Simplicity

As the one, single button on the front of the phone, it was the ultimate escape key. Can’t find an exit app button onscreen? Did an app hang? Does an app confuse you? Is the screen black for no reason? Just press the only physical button on the front of the phone and return to the home screen.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but no one else had anything quite like it. (OK, Samsung copied it soon afterward, but that barely counts.) Most Android phones came with “soft buttons”, onscreen buttons or tap-able areas below the screen. But there were more of them–remember back, home, menu, and search?–or they had weird, almost meaningless icons-square, circle, triangle-that you had to figure out.

Physical orientation

A side benefit of a physical home button was that you could feel it with your thumb, and always know which way you were holding the phone by touch alone. When it inevitably goes away, I will miss the familiar sensation of finding it when the phone is in my pocket, to orient my hand and to use as a pivot as I swing the phone around to use it.

Consistency

Over time, the home button was overloaded to do multitasking and Touch ID, but it always served its original purpose, and Apple never screwed it up, even with its non-moving, Taptic Engine-driven style in the iPhone 7. (That phone’s haptic feedback feels incredible.)

Obviously, Android’s early move from physical buttons to soft-buttons approach worked out all right, but, to me, Apple’s stalwart refusal to ditch the physical home button over many generations of iPhone reflected, in my opinion, a design ethic centered upon simplicity and humanism, which I really respected.

I’m not sorry to see (presumably) the home button go, but it was definitely one of the reasons I admired the design of the iPhone, and ditched my Android phone for one years ago.