Can gestures replace hardware buttons?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from  Arizona
| Published: January 19, 2013

As we move forward, and we watch our phones evolve, we’re being shown a level of innovation that’s truly breathtaking. Our smartphone displays are getting bigger, and our phones are getting thinner. The cameras we’re shoving inside those thin frames are removing the need for dedicated devices for most owners. Our smartphones are still phones, and yet they’ve transcended that simple function. We’re watching new ways to interact with our phones become mainstream news pieces, and rightfully so. We’re moving beyond the traditional, and exploring new ideas in exciting new ways.

I’m glad that I can say Research In Motion is a company that is embracing those ideas. Let’s face it, we could be watching the company go the complete other direction, and just stick to what they know. What they’ve done. Moreover, what the mobile industry has already done. We could be watching the BlackBerry manufacturer launch their new platform with old ideas the core of the effort. Instead, RIM is just jumping with eyes closed into uncharted waters.

No life-preserver vest. They don’t even have a duck-themed flotation device around their waist.

I haven’t been coy about my desire for gestures in my smartphones. I’ve completely embraced the sliding panels in some applications on current-generation devices, and I can’t wait to see more of that design decision implemented in apps moving forward. But RIM has taken it one step further, and given me sliding pans within the OS itself. I’m not afraid to admit that that is one reason why I am so excited about RIM launching BlackBerry 10 later this month. I can’t wait to try it, to see how it works in the real world, and not just in a demonstration on stage.

It should be noted, though, that gestures aren’t a brand new phenomenon to the mobile industry. They aren’t brand new to our smartphones, or tablets. Back in 2009, Palm introduced the world to webOS, and along with it the “gesture area” on their flagship device the Palm Pre. Inputting a simple gesture in that area, just below the touchscreen display, meant you could do all sorts of things: Swipe up to go into “Card Mode,” which let you multitask in a new and exciting way. Swiping right-to-left made you go back in a Web page, or up one level while in a detailed menu.

There are a plethora of gestures you could use with webOS, and other mobile platforms for that matter. Android has gestures. iOS has gestures. They may not be a new idea, but they are one that hasn’t seen a huge focus from our major smartphone manufacturers. They’re included, sure, but more often than not they’re just an overlooked, “neat” feature.

RIM is looking to change that in a big way, thankfully. They’re ready to change a lot of the ways we interact with our phones, and if we’re seriously worried that the hardware of our smartphones is starting to stagnate this year, thankfully we have software developers ready to change the way we do things.

This last week has been an exciting one for BlackBerry 10 enthusiasts, or anyone even remotely interested in RIM’s newest mobile operating system. We’ve seen plenty of leaks, heard plenty of rumors, and we’ve even been blessed with two separate videos of the new OS: One showing the phone and software in general, and one video focusing on the voice controls, and the software keyboard. It’s all coming together quite nicely for Research In Motion, and hopefully they can keep that train rolling when they take the stage to make their announcements.

It was the first video that got me thinking about this particular article. In that video, the Austrian site Telekom Presse shows us all sorts of cool gestures we can use with BlackBerry 10, focusing a bit on the way that owners will wake up the device while its screen is off. Basically, you tickle your phone to wake it up. (I’m kidding.) What you do though, is slide your finger up from the bottom of the display, and you’ll gain access to your phone. You don’t have to hit the power button if you don’t want to. You can even measure the amount of screen you reveal to access the phone proper, or just take a peek at the lock screen.

I’m not taking anything away from RIM here, but it’s one of those things that looks so simple, you can’t’ help but wonder why we haven’t already been doing it for years.

Another one of the gestures that stood out to me (besides those sliding panels!), is the ability to activate the “Night Clock” mode (that’s what I’m calling it, because it sounds cool, okay?), which can turn off notifications for a short period of time, and even let you access your alarms. It’s a great idea, and just goes to show you that RIM is working diligently on making ease of use in BlackBerry 10 an absolute rule. This isn’t just a feature. This is the OS; just like gestures were the core to webOS.

This is the software, the very ideas that I think could make us completely forget about hardware keys. Even if you love physical camera buttons. Think about gestures in the sense that you wouldn’t have to take your phone out of your pocket. Want to turn up the volume, while you’re listening to music through your headphones? Just slide two fingers up on the display, even if it’s sleeping. Turn it down? Slide the pair of fingers down.

Yes, hardware keys can make it just as easy, but depending on how long you own a phone pushing those buttons over and over again isn’t so great. I honestly dislike hitting the Home button every time on the iPhone when I need to exit an app. Just give me more gestures, please.

So, Dear Reader, would you give up physical buttons on your smartphone if you could use more gestures to activate key elements in your smartphone? Let me know!