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Apple’s shutter button case highlights the power of software control

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Button of the month: the iPhone 11 Battery Case shutter button

The shutter button on Apple’s iPhone 11 Battery Case is not a very good button at all. It’s a soft, rubber indentation on the side of the phone that barely manages to be distinct enough to find without looking for it, let alone offer a satisfying tactile sensation when pressed. And yet, the button is still the best of its kind for one reason: software perks that let it interact with the phone in a way that no other add-on shutter button can.

It’s no secret that developing hardware and software together makes for better devices. It’s a common theme that we’ve seen with countless buttons, good and bad. And when talking about phones, laptops, or gamepads — as I often do with this column — it’s often the software that’s more important than the hardware.

Moment, for instance, made a better option when it comes to hardware alone. The shutter button on its iPhone battery case is more advanced (it has half-press shutter capabilities), and it’s located in a spot that’s easier to press. But the button only works once the camera app is already open and, faced with the limitations of Apple’s accessory ecosystem, Moment hasn’t updated its case since the 2017-era iPhone X.

Apple’s battery case gets features that no other case with a shutter button has. Its shutter button can instantly launch the camera app from the home screen, even when the phone is locked, and it can immediately snap a picture or video simply by pressing (for stills) or pressing and holding (for video). Apple’s shutter button also works even when the battery case’s internal battery dies, something that other competitors can’t do.

The issue is that Apple is infamously protective of its hardware / software ecosystem. Apple’s official cases have the ability to display charging information and battery life for the case directly on the phone. Other camera cases simply can’t offer a button like the one Apple has.

And since battery cases need to work through a Lightning port, they’re also governed by Apple’s rules for its MFi accessories program — meaning that if Apple doesn’t like an accessory, it doesn’t get made. For example: the iPhone X didn’t get any official battery cases until it was almost a year old, reportedly because Apple was concerned about battery performance.

It’s a stark reminder of the power that software can add to a button — and conversely, of the difficulty in competing with a first-party product when you don’t have the ability to leverage those software functions on the same level. It doesn’t matter how good or bad hardware is when it’s software that defines how useful a button can be.