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Future Android phones could have no buttons, says Google

The Motorola Xoom Android tablet has ditched the home, menu and search buttons, and the signs point to a button-less HTC Android phone as soon as next month.

Future Android phones may be button-less monoliths, according to a Google spokesperson.

Google could ditch the requirement for the traditional Android buttons -- home, menu, back and search -- when the phone version of its software receives the same user-interface refresh as the tablet stream. Android forked into big-screen and small-screen versions with the recent launch of Android 3.0 Honeycomb on the Motorola Xoom tablet. 

The Xoom doesn't have hardware buttons on the front, although it does have volume buttons on the side and a power button on the back. Instead, home, back and menu buttons are shown on the screen.

In a briefing with Google's Dave Burke, the director of engineering for the Android team emphasised the benefits of software buttons instead of the real thing, when switching between landscape and portrait orientation.

"No matter how you hold the tablet, you always know where to find the buttons -- on the bottom left," said Burke. 

He also noted that the buttons can be hidden when you want to have some full-screen fun, such as when reading an e-book in the new Google Editions app.

Burke told us that with Honeycomb, Google is trying to sort out Android's user interface to be more appealing and intuitive, and the improvements should eventually come to the mobile phone version of the software. 

So does that mean no buttons for mobiles, too? Burke shied away from confirming the change for sure, but we think so. Particularly because it's likely that the tablet versions of Android will merge back into the phone branch in future versions, although Google's man with the plan says the company isn't sure how, or when, it will happen.

HTC may already have a button-free phone in the works, if you trust the leaked renderings that appeared on the mobile blogs PocketNow and Phandroid. These are drawings, not real phones, and the blank button spaces could be due to the images being place-holders. Or they could even be touch-sensitive buttons that aren't visible when dark, like on the Google Nexus S. But if this is a real phone, we could see it launched as soon as next month at Mobile World Congress.

Slashing the physical interface gubbins is a long-standing Android trend. The first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, was practically overflowing with knobs and toggles, including a BlackBerry-like trackball. By time we saw the Samsung Galaxy S, they'd been edited down to three, with a menu button that doubles as a search button with a long press.

That's not to say manufacturers couldn't choose to slap some switches on their Android phones if they fancy it. Although Google tends to lay down the law for the layout of Google-branded phones such as the Nexus S, it gives companies their heads when they don't crave that nebulous certification. 

That means we could see phones with everything from a bare face to an explosion in a button factory. Which would you prefer? Let us know in the comments.

Phone image credit: Phandroid