What Will Apple Do With The iPhone 5 Home Button?

The notion that the iPhone 5 will lose its iconic home button has risen once again in the rumor mill. But is Apple really ready to do away with it in favor of a next-generation solution?

For those of you who have been following this blog for a year or more, you’re starting to see a pattern develop in 2012′s iPhone 5 rumor mill: what goes around comes around. This week, it’s a recycling of the disappearing iPhone 5 home button, thanks to an iPhone 5 concept video that went viral. The video depicts a larger-screened iPhone 5 sans the front-facing home button, instead opting for two squeezable side button areas, much like how you can squeeze some of the Mac mice to bring up multiple windows. The designer imagines the two side buttons not only as a way to ergonomically get from an app back to the home screen, but also as a way of replacing swiping in order to navigate the home screen’s icons.

While the media has expressed some degree of excitement or interest in the concept, it is not grounded in any patent or actionable rumor, and for that matter, I don’t particularly like the idea of replacing one button with two, and replacing a tangible button that clicks with two side buttons that you squeeze but never get any real physical feedback from.

But whether or not Apple opts for this new dual-side button format or not, it’s worth posing the question — now in this new year — as to whether or not Cupertino will do away with the home button once and for all.

As we all know, Steve Jobs was famous for designing devices with fewer physical buttons. The Macs, after all, make quite a statement by having no eject button for their drives, and no simple on-off switch. Perhaps it is seen as a feature that proves the Mac to be a more intelligent, intuitive next-generation computer, a means of avoiding a potential hardware breakdown, or just a cool aesthetic feature, but the minimally-buttoned gadget is definitely a species of Apple.

And yet, while alive, Mr. Jobs felt compelled to maintain the home button and side buttons on the iPhone and iPad, even up until his death.

Last year, we had talked about gesture control “smart bezels” (this is bound to get rumored on again — just wait for it) that could replace volume and other navigation buttons with smooth, integrated touch surfaces that would complement the main display. Perhaps all of this was in store for the aborted 2011 iPhone 5, but to this point, we’ve had no reason to believe that to be the case.

There are, however, a couple of new developments that we can look toward in order to determine what might be in store for the home button’s fate on the iPhone 5. First up is Siri. In many ways, Siri has already moved the home button, conceptually speaking. By challenging the iPhone user to interface more frequently with the headset, pressing its button to give commands to Siri, Apple has now lobbied for the hardware-based “action button” on the iPhone to be moved up onto the earbud controls. Granted, this is not the same as the home button — but it could be on the iPhone 5. Apple could very well offer a hardware home button on the headset, and make the iPhone 5′s home button part of the actual display. Or, the user could simply use a specific gesture to get back to the home screen.

Another factor to monitor is the iPad 3.

I argued recently in another article that Apple may be looking to move the design of the iPhone and iPad farther apart, so as to further encourage users to own both. That being said, if we see the home button on the iPad 3 disappear, we may very well surmise that it might be gone for the iPhone 5 as well. Tech pundits are citing the larger screen of the iPhone 5 as a reason for losing the home button — well, the iPad 3 is also rumored to get a resolution upgrade. It’s possible that Apple will set the state for no home button with the iPad 3 and follow up with the same new feature on the iPhone 5.

Pardon the pun, but the home button is a touchy subject for iPhone users. For as much as iPhone users tend to love the gesture control innovations that new iOS versions roll out, the analog home button somehow complements the gesture experience. and now, with rumors that 3D gesture control could one day come to the iPhone, users might be thinking that future mobile computing may be more like playing the theremin than operating what we think of today as a smartphone. In short, iPhone users may not be ready to give up the comfort of the home button.

But in Cupertino’s usual style, it doesn’t really matter what we think, does it?

By Michael Nace



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