Will Ice Cream Sandwich remove the need for physical buttons on Android phones?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| June 15, 2011

Since we were first met with Honeycomb (and we actually got to see how different it really is) speculation about Ice Cream Sandwich and what it would entail has sky rocketed. Many were up in arms, worried that 2.3 and 3.0 was the point of eternal divergence in Android: tablet-specific and phone-specific versions. Andy Rubin came to the rescue though, and smoothed things over a bit, claiming the two versions would meet back up at Ice Cream Sandwich, presumably Android 4.0.

Rubin also went on to say that ICS would bring some of the features of Honeycomb to handsets. But he left us with a cliff hanger; we have absolutely no idea what he meant. What features of Honeycomb will come to our phones in Ice Cream Sandwich?

As per usual, the next version of Android will likely launch with the next iteration of the Nexus line. There have already been some leaks – which later proved to be faked and used to garner more traffic for a small site – that claim to be the next Nexus phone. A unique feature, or lack thereof, of these so-called Nexus phones is that they are buttonless. Many believe that ICS will remove the need for physical (or capacitive) buttons on Android phones and replace them with dynamic, on-screen buttons, much like Honeycomb.

Having on-screen buttons instead of capacitive on a device with 7- or 10.1-inch display is one thing. Taking up precious pixels on a device with a 4.3-inch or smaller display is entirely different. Some people I have talked with say they wouldn't mind sparing a few pixels and removing the physical buttons. But what this effectively does is waste space on a display that is already relatively small. It would be both inefficient and sloppy.

Of course, Google is pretty clever and they may have a few tricks up their sleeves – in fact, I'm sure they do. Take, for instance, the interface that appears in Honeycomb. If you change the pixel density of your Honeycomb tablet (depending on what tablet and what version it is running), a Gingerbread interface will appear. There are no on-screen buttons in these hidden user interfaces. Ice Cream Sandwich will likely follow the same technique and will adjust accordingly based on pixel resolution and density; no software buttons on the smaller display.

When it comes to updates, it is also important to take manufacturers into consideration. Unlike most other platforms out there, Android has numerous manufacturers in its camp. Getting all of them to make a swift change over to buttonless devices would take some time.

Also, if the 4.0 update does remove the need for physical buttons, what would happen to all of the current phones on the market? Would they have both software and physical buttons? I sure hope not. Rest assured, Google wouldn't allow current phones to be forgotten as they are trying to battle fragmentation with ICS, not create more.

My best guess is that Ice Cream Sandwich will not look too different from the current Gingerbread. However, there will be some noticeable differences. It will probably have several features of Honeycomb like the widget, wallpaper and shortcut menu, and probably an updated app drawer.

If anything, it will likely sport gesture controls or a gesture area instead of unnecessary, pixel-wasting, software buttons. Regardless of what Ice Cream Sandwich entails and whether it eradicates physical buttons or not, I hope we never have to endure something to the effect of the (very poorly) depicted next-gen phone above.

Image via Joy Studios