Why Apple Could Kill Buttons on the iPhone

It’s all about making devices smaller

Key Takeaways

  • A new patent application suggests Apple may be considering eliminating buttons on the iPhone. 
  • Doing without buttons could make devices slimmer and easier to waterproof. 
  • Other manufacturers, including Samsung, also are exploring ways to remove buttons from phones.
Someone looking at a smartphone and holding a cup of coffee in an office setting.

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Apple’s rumored move to do away with buttons on future iPhone models could mean smaller devices, experts say. 

A newly revealed patent application for a "Disappearing Button or Slider" shows Apple wants to make controls nearly invisible. A buttonless design also could improve durability. It’s part of Apple’s continuing drive to make its devices as minimalist as possible. 

"The advantages include having less mechanical parts to fail," James Mitchell, a usability and mobile software researcher at Keele University who previously worked at Apple, said in an email interview. "It can also contribute to the device having a smaller profile due to fewer parts on the edges."

Keeping iPhones Safer

One obvious goal of Apple’s buttonless patent is to make devices tougher. Removing buttons makes waterproofing phones more straightforward, as there are fewer entry points to protect, Mitchell said. 

According to Apple’s patent application, a traditional mechanical keypad can wear out over time and be ruined by dirt or moisture entering into the openings in the device housing. "These openings are necessary to accommodate the traditional keys and buttons," the patent application stated.

But, Mitchell points out, Apple won’t necessarily replace the buttons entirely. 

Someone using a smartphone and a laptop computer at a kitchen counter.

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"The iPhone already wakes from sleep when lifting; volume, etc. can be controlled by software; and gestures already allow for a lot of functionality," he added. "The sleep/wake button could be difficult to replace as the device would require power on."

Instead of removing the button,  Apple could implement a procedure in which users don’t need to power the iPhone down, Mitchell said. You could power on the device by connecting a power cable. 

"Advanced haptics could also be used to achieve functional buttons without the need to have physical-mechanical mechanisms," he added. 

Down the No-Button Rabbithole  

Apple has a long history of whittling down product design to make its products sleeker. The iPhone lost its home button in 2017 with the introduction of the iPhone X. The Apple mouse has long been sold without the physical controls standard on many mice made for Windows. 

Some of Apple’s minimalist design decisions have been more controversial than others. The recent Magic Keyboard designs are just too small for me because they lack the depth for a decent typing experience. 

If Apple does remove buttons from its smartphone, it won’t be the first company to do so. 

Launched in 2018, the HTC U12 Plus was among the first phones to only use pressure-sensitive buttons. A year later, the Chinese phone maker Meizu created a smartphone with no buttons. The Meizu Zero replaces the buttons with advanced haptics at the side of the device.

Samsung recently was awarded a patent titled "Galaxy Z Fold Squeeze Gesture" that could allow the company to do away with buttons. Because it could be hard to push buttons on the side of the phone when folded, the patent suggests using gestures instead. 

Sentons makes special sensors that allow surfaces to be used as virtual buttons on phones and other devices. The company recently announced it's teaming up with  Lenovo to turn the Lenovo Legion Duel Phone 2 into a console-like controller with four ultrasonic shoulder keys that replicate L1, L2, R1, R2 controls on the phone's edge. 

The keys enable a bezel-less edge on the device that can be tailored to detect finger location and movements, recognizing everything from light to hard taps and multiple slides and swipes. The company claims that the gestures mimic in-game maneuvers like aiming and shooting. 

Mitchell said he personally doesn’t care whether or not a phone has buttons, but the replacement has to be intuitive. 

"I like to be able to use devices without having to think about it," he added. "In terms of removing buttons, it makes sense from a manufacturing perspective, as there are fewer parts in terms of the external design. Haptic feedback is incredible when implemented correctly, and the trackpad on the MacBook Pro is an excellent example of this."

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