¶ The Disappearing Home Button Caper

As is natural with Apple press invitations for events, folks like to look for hidden meaning in them. Many have noticed that yesterday’s invitation for next week’s iPad event doesn’t show a home button on the iPad’s bezel.

And people have lost their minds over it.

My Twitter timeline has been filled with people thinking Apple is going to kill off the home button next week. Conversing with some folks, I’ve heard that the multitouch gestures that can be enabled in Settings on an iPad running iOS 5 were the beta test for getting rid of the home button.

So many seem to think Apple will either rely on gestures, or introduce a capacitive home button. One even suggested that there may be a capacitive home button on each side, so the iPad will become orientation agnostic.

I have some arguments for why I think Apple will not be saying goodbye to the home button as we know it.

The Argument Against Gestures-Only

iOS 5 introduced the ability to turn on multitouch gestures to control quickly changing between apps, revealing or hiding the multitask bar, and closing an app. These are all accomplished by swiping four or five fingers right or left, up, down, and doing a full hand pinch, respectively.

I can’t remember if the multitouch gestures are enabled by default or not on iOS 5, but let’s say they are, since they would have to be if the iPad dropped a home button of any sort. How many people do you think actually know they exist? I seriously doubt my mom knows about them. I am certain my father-in-law doesn’t. And you know why? They aren’t obvious.

The home button is right there, on the front of the device, beckoning to be pushed. It doesn’t take much to figure out its primary function — closing an app and taking you home. The button even has the rounded square outline of an app on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the gestures to switch apps and close an app quickly without having to tap the home button. I use them all the time. But you know what else I use all the time on my Mac? Keyboard shortcuts.

Complex multitouch gestures are the keyboard shortcuts of an iPad.

Not to mention that complex gestures involving four or five fingers would really suck if you were missing a couple fingers. And if you take a stroll through the accessibility settings on OS X or iOS, you’ll quickly realize that Apple greatly caters to folks with disabilities.

Also, if Apple exiles the home button from the iPad, it would make sense to do the same with the next iPhone. How in the world would you easily achieve a complex gesture on a 3.5-inch screen in order to go home? And how would you do that with one hand?

The Argument Against a Capacitive Home Button

This is where the people vouching for a capacitive home button come in. The home button is still there, it’s just not a moving part, and may be nearly invisible to the eye until you touch the target area.

Apple tried doing capacitive buttons on the iPod back in 2003. The third-generation iPod was fully capacitive. I had one. It was okay. It was awful trying to do anything while in the car, say, trying to pause the music. You don’t want to take your eyes off the road, so you fumble your hand on the iPod, and before you know it you’ve gone forward three tracks instead of pausing it because there wasn’t tactile feedback.

This was solved with the click-wheel, which has remained unchanged throughout the years on any iPod that didn’t go touchscreen, or the iPod shuffle, which never had a click-wheel.

Maybe a capacitive home button would work with today’s devices. It is only one button that more or less performs one primary function, and its secondary functions could be replicated easily.

But what about accidentally turning on the screen? I wake my iPhone by tapping the home button far more than I do my clicking the sleep/wake button. If the home button went capacitive, wouldn’t the screen on an iPhone activate in pockets? You can control a touchscreen through your t-shirt with your finger, so why couldn’t a capacitive home button activate against your leg through your pocket?

The solution would be to remove the ability of the home button to activate the screen. That’d be awful.

I definitely think the home button could use some work. It doesn’t feel like it was designed to withstand so many clicks for a couple years or more.

I don’t think the solution lies with making the home button touch sensitive nor removing it entirely for non-obvious complex gestures.

I think the home button is here to stay for some time.