Yesterday we heard a rumor floating about that Apple's next tablet would be missing its distinctive home button, something Apple's mobile devices have carried since birth. Also included in the somewhat random rumor was that this would eventually happen to the iPhone, too. More than likely the iPhone 5. One of my least favorite things about iOS devices is their one-button interface, or the lack of a dedicated menu button. Could removing the one button it does have be beneficial at all? Ironically, I think it could.
One thing that is becoming more and more prevalent in the touchscreen world we live in is the use of gestures. A true way to get more functionality out of a very basic form of input. The first real exploitation and deep integration of gestures was in Palm's webOS. Gestures are present in iOS (slide to delete, swipe left or right through pictures, etc.) and in some Android, too, just a limited amount.
The iOS 4.3 SDK, also mentioned yesterday, will bring things like four- and five-finger gestures to the operating system. Something like this on a (primarily) two-handed device are perfectly fine and don't hinder your use in any way. Most people hold the device with one hand and navigate with the other. Which gives developers several ways to configure and utilize very complex and precise gestures, without obstructing normal use. Shrink that display by roughly six inches and things could get a little more tricky.
Of course, I don't believe Apple would ever be ignorant enough to force users to use four- and five-finger gestures on a 3.5-inch display. That would be ludicrous to say the least. But even two-finger gestures would require you to hold the device with one hand and navigate or input with the other, for many different functions (i.e.: pinch-to-zoom). This would make simple tasks somewhat inconvenient. If they plan to use implementations like Palm has with webOS – a single-finger gesture to perform a simple action – it will work just fine on their phones, too.
Removing the home button would also leave some unused space at the bottom of the devices. Some devices, like the PlayBook and Palm Pre Plus, have utilized this off-screen area for gesturing, too. In short, the touchscreen is extended beyond the viewing window and makes better use of what would typically be “dead space.” If Apple can make use of this space similarly on their iPhone and iPad, removing the home button won't be a big deal; you would hardly notice it was gone. A simple off-screen “tap” could take you back to the home page. For more advanced gestures though (two- or three-fingers), two hands would still be necessary and could become an inconvenience when one hand is tied up.
Something that Apple has always aimed for with their iOS devices, and even their computers, is simplicity. Jobs is right; with iOS, you know how to use it when you first pick it up. A one-button interface is simple, about as simple as you can possibly get, actually. Taking away that button doesn't necessarily make things any easier though. Gestures aren't always so instinctive as sliding left or right to view the next picture. One of the biggest learning curves for webOS is all of the different swiping and tapping you have to teach yourself. Difficult to get used to, but once you learn them they're hard to forget. Wouldn't you much rather be able to swipe up with two fingers – as opposed to double clicking a button – to bring up the task tray?
I've always been a fan of buttons (call me old fashioned) and resistant to touchscreens; hence why I still carry my trusty BlackBerry. But it's not like we're talking about getting rid of an entire keyboard here; it's one button with no more than three functions. Extend the touchscreen onto the bezel, get rid of the button, and call it a day. Good riddance, Home Button.