Out with the new, in with the newer
Ten years ago Apple introduced the single button to smartphones. But the new iphone X came without it
By dropping the home key the original iphone introduced to the world, Apple has lived up to Steve Jobs’s famous exhortation: “If you don’t cannibalise yourself, someone else will.”
What seems like a tiny design change is actually a major shift in the way we interact with smartphones.
When it was introduced in 2007, the iphone broke with convention by ditching all the keys we’d previously used on feature phones. Instead, the phone came with a large touchscreen and a single key — the home key.
This simplified interface has been dominant in the smartphone era, offering a simple way of navigating, much like using only a single left mouse click to get around what is actually a sophisticated operating system. Android copied the interface, but added the excellent back key and a key to see previously opened apps.
With the iphone 5 in 2012, Apple’s home key evolved into a fingerprint reader. The company later reinvented the home key, giving it a two-click option that let you see other open apps and navigate between them.
All major iphone updates, bar 3D Touch, were like a right mouse click, have been through software updates, making this hardware change all the more significant, and all the more relevant as Apple’s results this week focused on sales of this new model.
Without the home button and its fingerprint reader, Apple needed a new biometric mechanism to unlock the phone and verify its user. It introduced facial recognition, using cameras and sensors that are framed by a “notch” at the top of the screen — another design shift that some Android phone makers have shamelessly copied.
In the place of the home button came an upward swipe. It works at least 95% of the time, much like the preceding fingerprint readers, and is a natural evolution of the interface. After a few days I was adept at using it. It seems intuitive and easy to use.
The loss of the home button on the iphone X hasn’t created as many headlines as Apple’s abandonment of the headphone jack did, but it is an infinitely bigger change. It has required app makers to adapt to the new biometric interface, and it has allowed better features — and not just animated emojis with your facial expressions.
Android manufacturers have arguably found a better solution: moving the fingerprint reader to the back of the device — a more natural position when holding the phone.
Innovation in smartphone technology has plateaued in recent years. Increases in screen size, the addition of a second camera on the back, the reduction of the black strips around the screen (called bezels) and the waterproofing of phones are all marvels of engineering, but not innovation. You might include removing the home button in this category too.
But it should all be seen for what it is: the end of a cycle of rapid growth, much like the disappearing home button is the end of an era. There’s another one coming.
Apple’s single home key has dominated in the smartphone era, offering a simple way of navigating