Commentary Phones

Goodbye, home button? Get ready for iPhone's biggest change

It may sound impossible to imagine an iPhone without a home button. But in some ways, Apple has been preparing users for this eventuality for years.

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What will life be like without one of these? Maybe we already know the answer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When Apple unveils its new high-end iPhone on Sept. 12, it's widely expected to do away with the most iconic part of its handset: the home button. If the rumors are true, the all-screen design of the so-called iPhone 8 means no room for a bottom bezel, and thus no room for a physical home button (and its Touch ID fingerprint sensor). It will be the biggest design change to hit the iPhone in its 10-plus year history -- a radical change to the most basic usage element that has existed on the phone since day one.

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A glyph that appears in the HomePod firmware could be the rumored iPhone 8.

MacRumors

Or maybe it won't be that shocking a change at all. 

In fact, Apple has been nudging millions of iPhone owners with changes to homescreen navigation for the past several years. There are already pieces in place to suggest the transition may not be as wild and weird as you might expect. Android phones have already done it, and the iPhone can do it too.

The current iPhone's no-click home button could be training wheels for how the iPhone 8 will work

Here's the funny thing: The iPhone's home button is already gone. Instead of a physical button, 2016's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus featured a solid-state panel that used subtle vibration to simulate a button press. It initially drew mixed opinions: some felt the click was weird; others liked the haptic thump. But the point is, I got used to it, and most people I know did, too. It feels a bit like a real button, but it's not. And maybe that's how the iPhone 8 display will work, too.

Enhanced vibration (called "Taptic Engine") give the iPhone and Apple Watch their taps and thumps, and it already does a few things on the iPhone 6S and later models to feel tactile in iOS 10 (scroll wheels in settings, or pressing in on app icons). Pressing in on a part of the screen will probably feel the same as pressing in on the solid-state home button does now. The bigger problem, of course, becomes how to relocate that Touch ID fingerprint sensor -- or come up with a replacement. (More on that below.)

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Control Center is an app launcher away from being the home button replacement

iPhones currently stick four apps at the bottom of the home screen, locking them in place as you swipe to additional pages: useful, but inefficient. Swiping up for the Control Center usually accomplishes more, getting to settings and even some app shortcuts fast. Control Center is getting expanded in iOS 11, where it now offers a single page of user-configurable widgets and switches. But if that same updated Control Center page had a mini dock at the bottom for those same apps -- and/or a virtual home button -- it would basically be a one-stop shortcut. The problem with exiling the home button to the dock, though, is that it turns a single action -- pressing the handy home button that we have now -- into a two-step process: swiping first and then clicking the screen.

3D Touch could be better utilized for home screen shortcuts

It still feels like the variable pressure-sensitive 3D Touch technology that iPhones 6S and later use is way underutilized, to the point where it feels unnecessary. But what if pressing down on the home screen opened up sublayers, or app folders beneath? Maybe pressing down on the bottom of the screen could launch back to the home area, or Control Center. 3D Touch is there, and it's theoretically versatile... now Apple just needs to put it to better use.

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One-screen access to everything: is this is the post-home-button home screen?

Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS 11 on the iPad could be a preview of a no-home button iPhone

The iPad has already started exploring new ways of navigation in iOS 11. (The beta has been out since June, and the final version will likely be available in mid-September.) The app dock adds a lot of favorite apps for quick shortcuts, making better use of the iPad's additional screen real estate. It's not a massive change, but it's better than what it was in iOS 10, and better than the Touch Bar on recent MacBook Pros. The swipe-up app dock could be a model for what the iPhone 8 app area looks like. Maybe something on a smaller scale, with nested menus? I just want to get to what I need faster.

On an iPad Pro with iOS 11, swiping up brings a dashboard with open apps, plus Control Center. It's a single place to swap between apps or adjust settings. Basically, it's a type of Home Screen, buried beneath the grid of apps that is currently called the Home Screen.

Maybe that's what Apple could do with an iPhone 8 without a home button.

The big question: Will Face ID be a stand-in to Touch ID, or a second option?

Ultimately, there are plenty of workarounds for pulling the home button, many of which Apple has already laid the groundwork for. But the bigger question remains: what happens to Touch ID? Reports say that the top-end iPhone will ditch it. I still find that hard to believe. Touch ID is still pushing its way through Apple's product line -- it was added to MacBook Pros in 2016 -- and it's the key to Apple Pay, which still has a ways to go to gain traction at retailers in the US. 

Why get rid of Touch ID now? I could see facial recognition being a new, additional unlocking method to live alongside Touch ID, but I think it might take more time to make it truly seamless. I also wonder what sorts of accessibility concerns would arise from removing Touch ID and adding facial recognition instead. For instance, will banks and other key app vendors who have warmed to Touch ID be ready to sign off on facial recognition being used to access financial records? Supposedly, Apple's use of infrared scanning will allow iPhone unlocks in the dark, and avoid the "hack" that unlocks Samsung phones with photos of the user. But that's all theoretical until we see it in action.

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The side-mounted power button of the Sony Xperia Z5 doubles as a fingerprint reader. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Unless Apple's facial recognition cameras on the next iPhone that are better than I could possibly imagine -- effectively perfect -- I still think Touch ID needs to exist. And if the home button is removed, Touch ID's functions need to be relocated. Maybe it could live on the back of the iPhone -- where Samsung, LG, Google and others have already put their fingerprint sensors -- or on the side, where Sony has experimented. But the question of what happens to Touch ID and mobile payments is the biggest challenge to removing to the Home Button.

The rest already seems pretty sensible. I'm already starting to learn to live without it.

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