It comes up every now and then -- "Apple should ditch the Home button!" on the iPhone or iPad. There have been rumors of it happening, there've been false-alarms of it happening. With the recent launch of the Google Nexus 7, which doesn't have a Home button, we've been getting even more questions about it happening. But it's not happening. Not with the iPhone 5. Not with the iPad mini. Not any time soon.
Apple needs the Home button because users need the Home button.
Remember, iOS isn't for geeks -- it's for the mainstream. It's for people for whom traditional computers have always been inaccessible, intimidating, and stressful. The last part is particularly important when it comes to the Home button.
Part of the job of any good interface is to reduce user stress. This is done in numerous ways, from providing familiar appearances and contexts (including skeuomorphism), and consistent controls and explicit paths of action. And it's done by always providing an escape hatch. When a user knows that no matter what they do within an app, how lost or confused or frustrated they become, how badly they think they've screwed up, they can always hit the Home button and instantly be teleported back to a known, safe place, it immediately de-stresses the entire experience.
That's the whole purpose of "Home".
It's not quite that simple, of course. Apple does complicate the Home button by using additional clicks to return to the main Home page, or switch between Spotlight Search and the main Home page, and double-clicks to expose the fast app switcher, and optional triple-clicks to engage accessibility options, and a long press to launch Siri.
The transitions aren't smash cuts, however. Apple deliberately uses animations that impart a sense of direction and layout and movement through space. They overcome disorientation by sliding us from one screen to the next, or fading the screen and lifting it, but still keeping it visible. They take us from where we are and show us where we're going, which reduces the chances we'll feel lost, and mitigates stress.
Apple has also made sure that repeated clicks cycle through the various states, with the main Home page as the anchor point. That means, even as a stress response, even if we panic and just start clicking, we can see how we're moving from screen to screen, and we can see the main Home page come up, again and again, giving us a big target to stop on.
Even binding Siri to the Home button, while increasing complexity, can help reduce stress. Hold the Home button long enough, desperately enough, and Siri comes up. If Apple can get it working as well as it does in the TV commercials, we'll be able to launch Siri and tell it to do things, and not even have to worry about which app(s) need to be used or which individual steps are required to get it done. We'll have a Pixar-like assistant to walk us, and talk us, through it.
Other platforms vacillate between hardware and software Home buttons, and some have tried to eschew them completely. Apple has introduced multitasking gestures for iPad, which function alongside -- not in place of -- the Home button as shortcuts for those comfortable enough to use them.
Watch a 3 year old use an iPad or iPod touch. Watch someone in their golden years, who's never used a computer before, use an iPad or iPhone. Watch the democratization of computing technology and the feeling of control and empowerment given to casual users by the Home button, and it's easy to see why it's not going anywhere.
Launch an app. Click Home. Launch an app. Click Home.
Simple. Predictable. Dependable.