First Click: Forget the iPhone's disappearing headphone jack, what about the home button?


Let me be honest. When I first pitched this story to my editor I thought it was going to be about my dismay that Apple might be ditching the mechanical home button in the new iPhones being unveiled tomorrow — a rumor that’s been floated alongside the (more apocalyptic-seeming) disappearance of the headphone jack. But, after a little more thought on the topic, I have to admit I’m torn. If the mechanized home button is replaced, I’ll certainly miss it, but I’m beginning to realize it might also be for the best.

Multiple reports have suggested the home button as we know it will disappear with the next iPhone. Instead, they say, it'll be replaced by a static version that only simulates the feeling of being clicked using the technology found in the new MacBooks' Force Touch trackpads. (And how do those work? The short answer: magnets.)

The iPhone's mechanical home button is a part of its character

The thought of this depressed the hell out of me. I love the tactile aspect of gadgets — the clicks, taps, and snaps of buttons and switches. They give an object character and stage presence, but they’re also functional. After all, how do you know you’ve clicked something until it clicks? And while I’m no zealous Apple fan, I’ve always been certain I preferred the iPhone’s mechanical home button to the glassy touch buttons of most Android handsets.

My antagonism toward a static home button wasn’t helped by some hands-on time I had with prototype tech from a Cambridge-based company that's supposed to perfectly recreate the physical feel of buttons in glass displays using directed vibrations. The results were... not impressive. It didn't feel like a physical button was being simulated at all; it felt like the displays were just buzzing when I touched it.

More recently I tried out Force Touch in the 12-inch MacBook. It was, at least, convincing. Several times I clicked the track pad over and over as the machine powered on and off, and on each occasion I was pleasantly surprised when the immovable surface suddenly gave way under my fingertip and clicked up at me.

Verge colleagues have told me they can’t tell the difference between Force Touch and Apple's mechanical trackpads, but I think this is only because the company is clearing such a low bar. While Force Touch is able to trick your brain into feeling physical movement where there is none, it still only feels like half a click. The sensation is small and the travel is shallow. As a button it definitely feels real, but it doesn't feel good. In fact, it’s just like the 12-inch MacBook’s keyboard — mushy, unsatisfying, and a design decision Apple is just telling us to get used to.

A button’s just a button though, and there are counters to my complaints as well as arguments in favor of dropping the mechanical version. First, the Force Touch tech on the new MacBook isn’t bad, it’s just not great. Apple could probably improve upon it if it wanted. Second, although the utility of the new iPhones’ pressure-sensitive displays is hit and miss, when it works it's fantastic. For example, pressing down on the edge of the screen to access the app switcher (instead of double-pressing the home button) is something I’ve become completely dependent on using the iPhone 6S, and going digital with the home button could mean similar additional functionality, dropped in right under your thumb. Third, removing the mechanical home button would hopefully mean less broken iPhones. Not only does Apple analyst Ming-chi Kuo suggest the change could mean improved waterproofing, but broken home buttons are a factor in iPhone repairs. Any mechanical part is prone to wearing down, and the home button is no exception. Electronic waste is not a trivial issue, and I'm happy whenever changes are made to increase a device's longevity. (A counter argument: Apple is notoriously and shamefully hostile toward non-authorized repairs. A new home button might become tougher to replace.)

force touch

The Force Touch trackpad on last year's MacBook Pro.

The digitizing of mechanical parts is not new of course, just look at the fate of the click wheel. It started off in the first generation iPod in 2001 as an honest-to-goodness spinning dial, before being replaced the following year with a capacitive version. And here’s where my preemptive nostalgia for the mechanical home button seems silly, because when I got my first iPod in the mid-2000s I never knew what the mechanical click wheel felt like and I didn't care. I didn’t know to miss it because I’d never experienced it. The capacitive version was impressive enough.

The click wheel remains well suited for music players. It’s a good way to scroll through content that's best displayed as lists — winding through artists, albums, genres, etc. It’s also a nice example of craftsmanship. It's something tactile you can feel and appreciate, as opposed to engineering ingenuity Force Touch, which is still a marvel but one that's hidden and invisible. Perhaps for these reasons, physical dials survive in high-end MP3 players like those made by Astell & Kern. Just as with mechanical keyboards, they appeal to connoisseurs, but have been phased out of the mainstream in favor of more efficient designs.

Ashes to ashes, switches to skeuomorphs

So even if the home button survives for this year’s new iPhones, they're almost certain to disappear in time, like so many other physical interfaces. We've already heard rumors that the new iPhones in 2017 won’t have a home button at all, following Jony Ive’s ambition to create a phone that looks like a single sheet of uninterrupted glass. To me, that seems even less palatable than the simple digitization of the home button, but it’s probably inevitable. That's the story of consumer tech: ashes to ashes, switches to skeuomorphs.

I’m still going to be sore about losing the headphone jack though.

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