It might be time to face a hard truth – buttons are on their way out. The fact that Apple launched their newest flagship groundbreaking 10 year anniversary iPhone X without a home button cements a hypothesis that we’ve been sitting on for months, maybe years. Buttons are gone. They’re on the phone feature hit […]

It might be time to face a hard truth – buttons are on their way out. The fact that Apple launched their newest flagship groundbreaking 10 year anniversary iPhone X without a home button cements a hypothesis that we’ve been sitting on for months, maybe years. Buttons are gone. They’re on the phone feature hit list. Say your goodbyes, people.

A bit of button-y context.

Handset manufacturers have been ditching buttons for a few years now. LG, Sony and Google were among the first to take physical press buttons and replace them with software or haptic buttons. Around 2016, these haptic solutions became extremely trendy, but in the last 12 months the two most significant phone launches – the Samsung S8 and iPhone X – have both been bezel-less beauties. All screen, no buttons.

The deal with physical buttons

Humans love to be tactile. It’s a cultural phenomenon that pressing the right button can be extremely satisfying if it has the right level of click, or crunch, or resistance. We love the sensation of taking physical action and noting the response. Home buttons have traditionally not only been an assumed necessity for basic phone functionality; in some cases (like the iPhone for example) they were also iconic in terms of design.

Unfortunately, buttons posed practical problems for phone manufacturers. Because it was a moving part, it was both more likely to break and more expensive to make. Also having a physical button required a certain level of space on the phone not dedicated to screens. And, boy, do we love us a big screen. All the better to binge with.

iPhone XApple

Behold the mighty button-free screen of iPhone X

A practical, haptical solution

In 2016, phone innovators started exploring a kind of compromise. A ‘button’ area of sorts that could function as a physical control centre, but that didn’t require moving parts. To ensure that we simple, happy humans still got the pleasure and satisfaction of a physical response, the buttons were designed to be haptic – eliciting a synthetic physical callback, such as a little vibration.

Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus was the most notable early use of this technology, using their ‘Taptic Engine’ to replace the home button in the traditional sense, and instead use smart fingerprint scanning and pressure detection to complete actions.

More recently, Huawei has taken this a step further with the P10. The small area on the front sits in a place that we would semantically associate with home buttons as a concept, but in reality it’s just a gentle dip in the beautiful glass display. The touch-sensitive surface relies on gestures learned by the user to control. Long press for Home, short press to return to your precious screen, swipe left to access recent apps. Once learned, these little shortcuts can become automatic and fluid.

Space invaders

It’s no surprise, then, that the natural next step for manufacturers was to bin this little button signifier in its entirety. One could argue that it’s pointless – if all you’re doing is swiping and tapping then onscreen software buttons are just as functional. Of course, the benefit of a capacitive button is that you can embed fingerprint sensors and the accompanying security technology into the same place as your control centre. And, tech giants still haven’t figured a way to embed those systems into a glass screen.

February saw the release of Samsung’s much anticipated Galaxy S8, with its astonishing Infinity Screen and edge-to-edge display. And. No. Button.

 

Samsung cares not for vulgar buttons

They cleverly managed to keep fans happy by including popular features – including the double-click to launch camera (now situated in the side power button) and the ability to launch Google services from a locked home screen (say ‘Hello Google!’ and it opens.) The only contentious point was that the fingerprint security scanner was moved to the back of the phone, next to the camera, but Samsung even managed to work around that by launching an impressive alternative iris scanner, so that you could unlock your phone, hands free.

Skip forward eight months and Apple celebrate their 10th birthday with a mega-launch of two impressive phones. While the iPhone 8 continues that ‘Taptic’ button design, the iPhone X was a revolutionary step for a brand that had made that single, circular button such a steadfast part of their aesthetic. The endless screen may be a design triumph, but it’s the implications for a button-less existence that’s really interesting when thinking about the future of mobile. Ever the creative problem solvers, Apple have taken the best learnings from other mobile developers, and given them a unique twist. They designed a jaw-droppingly sophisticated Face ID system, which uses infrared technology to scan your unique features as a way to unlock your phone, and keep it secure. They use the simple swipes and gestures seen on other phones’ mini track pads, but make the screen the playground. Most Apple users will be familiar with swiping on and off screen to launch actions, anyway.

What is this paving the way for?

Take a look at the tech landscape and there’s one word that’s cropping up time and again: voice. Voice assistance, voice-activated smart devices, voice-controlled TVs, vehicles, and computers. As we move towards a hands-free environment, the desire to have to push, prod, swipe or tap on our phones is going to diminish.

Speaking back in February, we spoke to Jon Carney – the Chief Digital Officer for EMEA – at MWC, and he predicted a similar trend:

“Without question, voice activation is rising. If we continue to invest in invisible interfaces: gestures, your body, your physical form, I think it will become the next playground for interactive services. Gartner have predicted that, by 2020, 30% of web browsing with will be with voice control. So, what does it mean? It means a world which is much more controlled by the user, it means you’re making the decisions, rather than the device. You become unburdened by your device – because you no longer have to tap an interface to search for things, or even carry a device with you, I know that doesn’t sound particularly heavy but once you enter a voice controlled world, reverting to a device will feel heavy.”

Indeed, Jon, that is heavy stuff. But is it lame to say that we’re actually low-key kinda excited? Bring on the future. And bye-bye buttons.