Jonathan S. Geller over at BGR reports that, according to his sources, we may see Apple removing the Home button from the next-generation iPhones and iPads, to be released this year:
We have exclusively been told that the reason Apple just added multitouch gestures for the iPad in the latest iOS 4.3 beta is because the iPad will be losing the home button.
In addition to the home button disappearing from the iPad, we’re told that this change will make its way over to the iPhone as well. Our source said Apple employees are already testing iPads and iPhones with no home buttons on the Apple campus, and it’s possible we will see this new change materialize with the next-generation iPad and iPhone devices set to launch this year.
Apple did add multi-touch gestures to the first beta of iOS 4.3 on the iPad, and I have no doubts we'll see even more become available in future versions of the OS. Like one to get back to the last used app, or others for more extensive music controls. But I don't think the Home button is going away anytime soon; it is a fundamental aspect of an iOS device that can't simply be replaced by a gesture. As Gruber puts it, these gestures on iOS 4.3 are like keyboard shortcuts on a Mac: they're useful and cool, but they're not meant for the average user who doesn't know about them. If you don't know they're there, they are not intuitive. Sure, anyone can do a little digging into the Preferences and find out about gestures -- but does the normal user do that? Does your dad learn keyboard tricks on OS X thanks to System Preferences?
I'm not saying Geller's sources are wrong. Actually, I do believe there are some iPads and iPhones with no Home button going around between employees at Cupertino. And I do think Steve Jobs and Ive have been experimenting with these ideas for years, even since before the original iPhone. Don't you think Jobs wanted the iPhone to be button-less and entirely touch-based? Sure, but some compromises need to be accepted. Can you imagine pulling out your iPhone from your pocket with one hand, and be forced to use the other one to do gestures? I've always used my iPhone with one hand most of the time, with my thumb reaching the Home button while in a Death Grip position. That's how people use iPhones. Gestures on such a device would be weird, and overall non intuitive or easy to discover.
Also, consider Apple's accessibility support built on top of the Home button. Moving to a button-free configuration would need Apple to rethink all its accessibility feature set and implement more gestures for the visually impaired, for example.
Still, assuming that Apple can manage to find the best ways to realize an iPhone or iPad without Home button, we should remember how Apple slowly iterates, implements, refines. On the Mac, we have support for mouse, trackpad and keyboard shortcuts. Multi-touch gestures will likely take over standard interaction methods on the desktop in the next few years but look at that -- it took 20 years to get there.
For the sake of the argument, I could say people are more familiar with touch gestures now than they were back in the 80's. Still: Apple doesn't rush things, in spite of the change of times. I'm pretty sure that will apply to the Home button as well.