It might sound far-fetched and absurd to imagine an iPhone without a home button. But in some ways, Apple has been its preparing users for this eventuality over the years.
When Apple reveals its new high-end iPhone (iPhone 8) on September 12, it is widely expected to do away with the most symbolic part of its handset, the home button. If the rumours are true, the all-screen design of the so-called iPhone 8 means no room for a bottom bezel, and thus no place for a physical home button and its Touch ID fingerprint sensor. It will be the greatest design change to hit the iPhone in its over ten years history, a radical switch to the most basic usage element that has existed on the phone since day one.
Or maybe it won’t be a surprising change at all.
Apple has been pushing millions of iPhone owners with changes to home screen navigation for the past few years. There are already fragments in place to suggest the change may not be as weird and wild as you might imagine. Android phones have already done it, why can’t the iPhone do it?
The current iPhone’s no-click button could be training wheels for how the iPhone 8 will work.
Here’s the amusing thing, the iPhone’s home button is not there anymore. Instead of a physical button, in 2016, the iPhone 7 and 7 plus gave us a solid-state panel that used faint vibration to reproduce a button press. It initially dragged mixed views, some liked the haptic thump, while others felt that the click was weird. But the point is, people eventually got used to it, and most people I know also did, too. It seems a little like a real button, but it is not. Maybe that is how the iPhone 8 display is going to work too.
The enhanced vibration which is called ‘Taptic Engine’ gives the Apple Watch and iPhone their taps and thumps, and it already does a couple of things on the iPhone 6S and later models to feel tactile in iOS 10, pressing in on app icons or scroll wheels in settings. Pressing in on a particular part of the screen might seem the same as pressing in on the solid-state home button. The major problem, of course, becomes how to reposition that Touch ID fingerprint sensor or think of a replacement.
Control Center is an app launcher close to being the home button substitute.
iPhones currently have four apps at the bottom of their screens, locking them in place as you swipe to extra pages, useful, but inefficient. Swiping up for the control Center usually achieves more, some app shortcuts and getting to settings fast. Control Center is getting increased in iOS 11, where it now gives a single page of user-configurable switches and widgets. But if the updated control Center page had a mini dock at the bottom for those same apps, and a virtual home button, it would be a one-stop shortcut. The issue with moving the home button to the dock, though, is that it turns a single action, pressing the handy home button that we have now, into a dual-step process, first of all swiping an then clicking the screen.
3D Touch could be better applied for home screen shortcuts.
It still seems like the variable pressure-sensitive 3D Touch technology that iPhone 6S and later uses is way underused, to the extent where it feels needless. But what if pressing down on the home screen opened up sub layers, or app folders beneath? Maybe pressing the bottom of the screen could launch back to the Control Center or Home area. 3D Touch is there, and it is supposedly versatile, now Apple just needs to put it to better use.
iOS 11 on the iPad might be a trail to what the no-home button on the iPhone would look like.
The iPad has already started discovering new ways of navigation in iOS 11. The beta version has been released since June, and the final version is likely to be available in the middle of September. The app dock adds a lot of favourite apps for quick shortcuts, thereby making better use of the iPad’s additional screen real estate. It’s not a big change, but it is better than what it was in iOS 10 and better than the Touch Bar on the recent MacBook Pros. The swipe-up app dock could be an example of what the iPhone 8 app area looks like. Maybe something on a lesser scale, with nested menus? I just want to access what I need faster.
On an iPad Pro running iOS 11, swiping up brings Control Center, plus a dashboard with open apps. It is a single place to switch between apps or adjust settings. It is a type of Home Screen, buried beneath the grid of apps that is currently called the Home Screen.
Maybe that is what Apple could do with an iPhone 8 without a home button.
The big question is, will Face ID be a substitute to Touch ID or will it be a secondary option?
Finally, there are lots of workarounds for pulling the home button, many of which Apple has laid the groundwork. But the bigger question remains, what is going to happen to Touch ID? Reports say that the new iPhone will do away with it. It’s still hard to believe. Touch ID is still trying to gain grounds in the Apple product line, it was added to MacBook Pros in 2016, and it is the key to Apple Pay, which still has ways to go to gain power at retailers in the United States.
Why would the Touch ID be removed now? I can see facial recognition being a new, additional method of unlocking to live alongside Touch ID, but I think it might take a lot of time to make it truly unified. I also question what sort of accessibility concerns would arise from removing Touch ID and adding facial recognition instead. For example, will banks and other key app vendors who have gotten used or accustomed to Touch ID be ready to approve facial recognition being used to access financial records? Purportedly, the use of infrared scanning by Apple will allow iPhones to be unlocked in the dark and avoid the ‘hack’ that unlocks Samsung phones with photos of the user. But that’s all hypothetical until we see it in action come September 12.
Personally, I feel unless Apple’s facial recognition cameras on the next iPhone that is better than I could imagine, effectively perfect. I still think that Touch ID needs to exist. And if the home button is removed, touch ID’s function needs to be moved to somewhere else. Maybe it could be on the back of the iPhone, where LG, Samsung, Google and some others have already put their fingerprint sensors, or rather on the side, where Sony has tried to experiment. The biggest challenge of removing the Home Button still brings about the question, what will happen to Touch ID and mobile payments.