Physical home buttons are all but extinct on modern smartphones, and the Palm Pre ended them.
It’s not hard to notice that smartphones have steadily shed their buttons throughout the years: keyboards, numpads, call and hang up buttons, directional navigation keys, and more have all fallen to the wayside in favor of more versatile touchscreens.
In 2007, the iPhone — with its then-revolutionary 3.5-inch multitouch display — helped to push that trend along by reducing navigation down to a single home button. But even as touchscreen sizes grew and buttons fell away, the humble home button stubbornly stuck around. (Apple wouldn’t ditch the button for over a decade, when the iPhone X arrived in 2017.)
But it was the Palm Pre, and its largely unnecessary center button, that showed home buttons could be removed for good.
The original Pre, launched in 2009, may not have seemed like the harbinger of home button doom. After all, the Pre had a home button, at least for its first iteration. But crucially, the Pre’s home button was effectively a vestigial organ — an appendix that evolution hadn’t quite managed to weed out just yet.
The first device to prove that gesture-based navigation could work
Pressing the Pre’s home button did exactly one thing: brought up webOS’s “Card” app switcher, something that could also be accomplished with a swipe gesture. Everything else about the Pre’s navigation was focused instead on the touch-sensitive area around the button. Gestures were used to return home, go back a screen, pull up a dock of favorite apps, and more.
The home button itself served more as training wheels for users used to seeing one on other touchscreen devices, rather than a necessary part of the user experience, one that was wholly optional to the actual function of the device.
It’s no wonder that just a year later the Pre 2 would go on to skip the nearly useless button entirely in favor of an illuminated LED strip for gestures. That familiar-looking white pillbox has been aped by the modern iterations of both iOS and Android for multitasking gestures.
There were, of course, issues with Palm’s implementation: some of the gestures were unintuitive, and for users making the jump from a more traditional Palm device, there were a lot of new concepts that had to be learned from scratch. Conversely, more modern smartphones benefit from the advantage of users who are far more familiar with touchscreen interfaces, along with far more real estate to make those gestures work.
But while the Pre would ultimately fail, it still stands out in history as arguably the device with the ultimate home button in the history of smartphones — and as the first device to prove that gesture-based navigation could actually succeed in replacing home buttons. And taking a look at any popular smartphone in 2021, it’s clear that at least in that regard, Palm was way ahead of the competition.