Opinion: You don't need the iPad home button

Since the release of iOS 4.3 beta last week, I have been testing out the iPad’s new Multi-Touch gestures and have tried my hardest to not touch the home button. With these new Multi-Touch gestures in play, Apple is rumored to be testing prototypes of iPads and iPhones without the hardware home button. Some people say Apple would never remove the home button but some think it’s a particularly interesting idea. In my use of an iPad “without a home button” I can attest that the button is absolutely not needed.

Even in beta form, Apple has done a phenomenal job with their implementation of the new Multi-Touch gestures. In many cases, using four or five fingers is quicker than reaching over to hit the home button. The pinch to the home screen gesture just feels more natural; like it should have been that way since the beginning. Back to the discussion about betas. Apple has been seeding betas of iOS for a couple years now and for the most part, early betas have been unstable and unreliable. The first beta of Apple’s new Multi-Touch gestures is the opposite though. They have been smooth and absolutely reliable every time. It should only get better in future betas and in the golden master version.

The home button is also the way you traditionally navigate to the multi-tasking bar. Instead of double clicking you simply swipe up top open the bar and swipe down to close it. This is much quicker and easier than double clicking to open and double clicking the physical button again to close the quick-app-switching menu. The next new gesture is something completely new, something that you could never do with the home button. iOS 4.3 will let iPad users utilize four or five finger to swipe across the display in order to get to the next open app.

Like I said in our report breaking the news about the new gestures, the system is very much like Apple’s Mission Control feature coming in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. Mission Control unifies many of Apple’s already existing technologies like Expose and Spaces, but also integrates Lion’s new full-screen apps features. In Lion, you will be able to use your Apple notebook’s Multi-Touch trackpad, Magic Mouse, or Magic Trackpad to flick through your full-screen apps with gestures. This demonstrates some unification between Apple’s two main software product lines and may even be a peek into some more unification.

On the iPad, the new gesture to navigate full-screen apps is phenomenal and is a true time saver. Again, all of these new gestures are insanely speedy and usually beat out the speed of the home button. I can honestly say I found no use for the iPad’s home button in my extensive use of the device and Apple could easily get rid of it. The gestures are very easy to pick up on, and Apple explicitly lists which gestures do what in the settings. You don’t even have to remember whether to use four or five fingers as either amount works for these new gestures.

Chris Foresman over at Ars Technica wrote up a compelling piece about why Apple “won’t yet ditch the home button” and while I agree with some of his points, the ones regarding specific iPad features requiring the home button could be fixed by Apple. The first point is accessing spotlight. You can easily navigate to spotlight by going to the home screen and flicking left until you hit the search screen. Next is screenshots and hard resets. Both of these functions rely on a combination of holding down the physical home button and the sleep/wake button. Apple could easily replace the home button part with the upper volume control. The same goes for holding down the home button to enter DFU mode.

On to the iPhone. I imagined using the iPhone without a home button – just with gestures – and it seems like something Apple won’t be able to pull off anytime soon. The screen is just too small and too many apps rely on three-finger gestures for Apple to make it three fingers on the iPhone (versus four/five on the iPad for size reasons). Overall, Apple has many compelling reasons to remove the home button from future versions of the iPad, and their replacement for the button seems just about perfect at this point. Apple has surely been doing internal testing regarding this change, and Apple’s latest iOS 4.3 developer seed is Apple’s method of wide-range testing. They specifically wanted App Store developers investigating the new gestures to make sure their 3rd party apps do not interfere with the three/four finger movements or vice versa. To summarize: You don’t need the iPad home button.

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