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How the Apple Watch is preparing us for an iPhone without a home button

Michael Simon | June 29, 2015
It's come a long way since its humble beginnings, but the iPhone has yet to go through a truly radical transformation. While the iPhone 6 was certainly a significant upgrade from the 5s, each biannual revision has mostly brought expected design changes--larger screens, higher resolutions, thinner chassis--and for the most part, the iPhone hasn't strayed too far from its original concept.

notification apple watch iphone

It's come a long way since its humble beginnings, but the iPhone has yet to go through a truly radical transformation. While the iPhone 6 was certainly a significant upgrade from the 5s, each biannual revision has mostly brought expected design changes--larger screens, higher resolutions, thinner chassis--and for the most part, the iPhone hasn't strayed too far from its original concept.

But while Apple may be very pragmatic with its releases, it also understands the need to take risks to keep a product fresh. A recent report by DigiTimes suggests that the company may be preparing to take a big one. According to the site's sources, Apple is developing its own in-house touch and display driver integration chips for use in future multitouch devices. As the site explains, the new tech "will also come with integrated fingerprint sensors ... with a whole-plane design, eliminating the home button."

A year ago I would have quickly dismissed a rumor like this. Even if Apple was able to move the fingerprint sensor under the display, the home button is iconic, and eliminating it would not only require a major shift in how we operate our devices, but also take away one of their most defining characteristics. But if Apple Watch is any indication, Apple is ready to think beyond not just the limitations of its single-button design, but how we use and interact with our mobile devices.

Navigation system

The home button is obviously the biggest obstacle to any serious design change. No matter how much further Apple refines its rounded rectangle, as long as that circular button stays firmly planted below the iPhone's screen, there isn't a whole lot more that can be done. Assuming we've reached the limits of screen size, that leaves only a few scant millimeters in thickness and bezel width, neither of which will bring the kind of improvements customers demand with each new release.

Even with a limited range of functions, the home button is the most familiar part of the iPhone. Its ubiquity is part of the reason some early adopters struggled with the Apple Watch's navigation--we're so accustomed to clicking the home button to return to the home screen of apps that we naturally expected a similar thing to happen with Apple Watch. When it didn't, people were confused.

But after using it for a stretch, it becomes the clear that Apple Watch actually has a smarter navigation than the iPhone's ultra-simplistic method. On Apple Watch, the de-facto home button (pressing the Digital Crown) is contextually aware enough to act as a sort of back and a next button--when you're in Glances, it brings you to your watch face; when you're on your watch face, it bring you to the apps; and when you're in an app it returns to the home screen. You can even double-tap it to jump back to the last thing you were doing. In practice, it makes perfect sense, and the more I use it the more logical it seems.

 

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