Why Apple won't be ditching the Home button any time soon

Why Apple won't ditch the Home button any time soon

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.

That's why the Home button isn't going any where. Not with the iPhone 5. Not with the iPad mini. Not any time soon.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Why Apple won't be ditching the Home button any time soon

35 Comments

I totally agree with the three year old comment. Watching my toddler navigate through my phone to find a game is pretty amazing.

I wouldn't be surprised if your child becomes a spoiled little brat...

this is sad the new parents of today don't give the same care to their children as they used to. Nowadays the asshole parent gives their child a phone to make sure they don't have to spend time with the little ones. Sad fact

And who's to say I'm not playing the game with him? There are also many educational apps I have that he plays. I'm going to guess you don't have kids. Back off and don't imply I don't spend time with my kids.

You were able to deduce that ransonju's kid is going to be a spoiled brat because his kid can navigate through his phone to play a game? I had no idea the brilliance that was trolling, errr commenting on this website.

I can also generalize. Nowadays the asshole internet commentator sits at his computer/phone/tablet and makes stupid, lazy, and uninspiring comments without any fear of reprisal or any accountability because they themselves have spent so little time with actual people that they do not know how to behave or speak to their fellow person with any sort of respect. That is a sad fact.

Then you want Android.

Personally, I find the "back" button the single most annoying aspect of the Android OS in that it's a button that does a whole variety of unknowable things depending on the context. It requires you to memorise what is going to happen when you press it in this, that or the other context.

I used the back button like crazy when I had an Android phone. But the implementation was so convoluted and inconsistent that it was infuriating. Sometimes you press back and it brings you to the last menu, sometimes it brings you to the menu above the one you're currently viewing, and sometimes it brings you to the home screen. The home button is much better for this, and the software Back button is much better, as its intentions are clear.

What's so hard about the back button? It brings you to the previous thing you were doing. And if there were no more previous things in that app... it exits the app!

I use the back button the way people used to use the backspace button on a keyboard......it simply brings you back to your previous action. It does take a while to get used to, but once you are used to using this feature it's hard to go without it.

I don't like the android way of doing it. When I said guesture I was talking about the BB10 feature where you can slide from your email to your inbox. I like the simplicity of the home button but sometimes being able to back out quickly instead of reaching for a button in a app is just effort LOOL

I played with enough Android devices with capacitative control buttons to know how much I hate them. When I'm in the heat of the moment with a game and accidentally touch those buttons and the game is paused or closed. I never have that issue with a hardware button that I know I have to press in in order to register it. How Android gamers deal with this for years is beyond me.

You miss out on another excellent reason for the Home button, although you allude to it when you talk about "frustrated users" finding a way home.

The presence of the Home button and the fact that it always returns the device to the same "knowable" state, is the main reason why blind and other handicapped people can use the OS. iOS is the first OS to be completely designed from the ground up for handicapped access and although the handicapped are a minority, in absolute numbers it's a huge segment.

The very first principle of designing interfaces for the handicapped is to have a way for the user to return the device to that "knowable" state so they can orient or re-orient themselves.

I didn't know that the iPhone was that accessible. It does make sense that a blind person can feel for the home button and use siri and voice commands. (not being sarcastic) But how does a blind person read an online post and find the reply button using a touch screen?

Thanks for that; absolutely true and something Apple doesn't get enough credit for the. The thoughtfulness when it comes to accessibility is excellent.

Honestly, I think the home button is vital in aesthetically differentiating apple products from buttonless tablets/phones (at least from the front perspective while off/sleeping).

I just wished they'd offer a good gesture on the iPhone because I really notice my home button deteriorate with time (something I've noticed happen on almost every iPhone). On my iPad 3 I never use the home button and it's an example of excellent gesture implementation.

Perhaps with the bigger iPhone 5 screen this will be an option.

Exactly. I was going to take issue with Rene's use of "dependable", when the home button stops working on all my iDevices (not sure if it has been fixed with 4s, iPad2 etc.). If you are jailbroken, I highly recommend QuickDo. I have it set up so if I touch the very bottom of the screen and hold, it acts as a single home click. If I touch the bottom and swipe up, it acts as a double click.

I haven't pressed my finicky home button in ages.

I use Zephyr to "save" my home button. It allows you to use gestures to go to springboard and switch apps, etc. It works pretty well but the only downside is that it's quite pricey at 5 bucks. I try to use as much as possible to spare my home button a bit.

I also don't think Apple should be saving money on the home button. It's function is vital to the whole device so I really think they should work on improving it. I don't have the 4S either and I pretty much only use gestures on my iPad 3 so I can't really be sure about the durability on the new generation but I do know for a fact it is one of the biggest complaints.

Thanks for that comment Rene, I didn't know that. I hopefully won't be having any issues with the iPhone 5 then :)

Humm...turning on Assistive Touch doesn't work well enough for you?

Settings:General:Accessibility:Assistive Touch to "On"

You now have a movable touch screen based home button and can create custom gestures.

Why the heck would anyone want a constantly present home button on their screen? Unless your home button is broken and your phone isn't jail broken I really don't see why anyone would do that.

Works the same way on the Nexus 7 but without a physical button. Launch an app, go home, launch an app, go home. The button on the iPhone/iPd is an eyesore and is awful for multitasking. Apple should remove it.

For me the home button is the most outdated part of my iDevices. I have an iPad 3, waiting for the next iPhone to replace my current one. Sure I could go Android as was remarked but that isn't the point now is it. Just because someone sees a physical button as outdated doesn't mean they want Android, maybe they see iPhone hardware as being stuck with the button that is a point of failure on.

It seems old, out of place and no longer necessary. Apple could easily created a large capacitive button on the bottom which would also let you know you were at the home button.

Of course we all know why there is only 1 button and why there will always be 1 button, because Steve said so. Just like he said 7" tablets were DOA and yet we are about to get one.

Good post, Rene, but I bet you meant "de-stresses" rather than "distresses" in paragraph 4. (Autocorrect??)