There’s a trend among Android phone makers that I’ve seen reach its apotheosis at this year’s Mobile World Congress. The capacitive touch buttons that have been a signature of Android devices for many years are now all but entirely deprecated. LG and Sony long ago moved to on-screen software buttons, aligning themselves with Google’s preference and advice, but the intriguing thing at MWC 2017 is the addition of a new type of interaction that has neither capacitive nor software keys — it just relies on one pseudo-button.
Huawei and Moto have both moved to a new type of home button, which isn’t really a button but rather just a touch-sensitive surface. So far, so familiar, but the novelty is that they’re now combining gestures and taps to turn the trio of Android shortcuts — Back, Home, and Recent Apps — into a one-button user interface. Huawei’s approach is one tap to go back, long press to go home, and a swipe to bring up the multitasking menu. Of course, this wouldn’t be Android without fragmentation, so Moto’s method is slightly different (swipe left to go back, right for multitasking, and a tap to go home), but having tried both of them, I can say that they’re improvements on the status quo and I’m glad the change is happening.
For Android purists, this may all seem like an unnecessary distraction. Give me my familiar Android trio, it might be said, and leave me in peace. Which is fine and dandy, since both of the new phones, Huawei’s P10 and Moto’s G5, offer the option to bring the familiar software interface back.
But we forget how abstract the Android buttons actually are, whether capacitive or in software: what does a left-facing triangle represent, and what does tapping a square or circle do? If you were a foreigner freshly arrived in Android land, you’d consider it all a foreign visual language. I’ve seen many people struggle to acclimate themselves to Android’s interface, wondering how to get back from an app or return to a previous state. One of my relatives has developed the habit of bashing the Back button half a dozen times instead of tapping the Home key just once. The Android interface is lightning-fast once you know what everything does, but for newbies, a simpler scheme is preferable.
Now, I’m not arguing that the Moto and Huawei gestures are any more intuitive than on-screen shortcuts. But I do find it much easier to explain to someone how they work, thanks to the presence of the touch area, which serves as a physical anchor for interactions. Instead of describing geometric shapes (which may or may not be on the screen, depending on the app), I can just say "tap the thing" or "swipe your finger across it."
Another reason I like this new system is that it also serves as the point of integration for the fingerprint scanner on both the Huawei P10 and Moto G5. Excellent fingerprint sensors have grown into a standard expectation from modern smartphones, however we shouldn’t take the engineering required to make them fit into an attractive design for granted. By serving this dual purpose, the 2017 version of the home button — as demonstrated by Moto and Huawei today, but also pioneered by Meizu with the Pro 6 last year — shows there’s still room for small but smart innovation in the way we use our phones.
In any case, with Samsung and LG going for phone designs that almost completely obliterate the front bezel, and most other manufacturers moving to on-screen buttons or this sort of hybrid system, the one thing we can probably all agree on is that the era of the old capacitive touch buttons is over.