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Apple’s War on Buttons Is Nearly Complete

The iPhone has always managed to eschew buttons—but will we miss the click?

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If you want to know how deep Apple’s hate for buttons goes, look no further than the very first iPhone announcement. It was a little more than a decade ago when Steve Jobs—resplendent in a black turtleneck, dad jeans, and white New Balance sneakers—introduced his company’s flagship product by first launching into a tirade against the feature.

“Here’s four smartphones,” Jobs said to a room of journalists in 2007, waving his hand up to the floor-to-ceiling screen behind him that displayed the Motorola Q, BlackBerry, Palm Treo, and Nokia E62—products whose bottom halves were filled with directional buttons and physical keyboards. He began pacing, shifting his demeanor from that of a casual observer to something more sinister, like a sorority president lining up her freshman recruits for a body-shaming ritual. “What’s wrong with their user interfaces?” he asked. “Well, the problem with them is really sort of in the bottom 40 there.” The slide switched to an image that had been photoshopped to highlight each item’s bottom half full of plastic bumps. “It’s this stuff right here,” he said. He paused for a moment to let his audience sit with this messy visual, then continued with his insults. Minutes later he would reveal the iPhone: a gadget that was nothing but a smooth glass screen punctuated by a single circular button.

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“The joke back in the day was that the reason Jobs wore turtlenecks was because he hated buttons,” said Jason Snell, who was a lead editor at Macworld for more than a decade and a member of the audience that day. “It’s stupid. But I think there’s truth to it, because Apple believes very strongly from its design standpoint that buttons are clutter, that there can only be as many controls that are necessary, and no more.”

Jobs is no longer around to take aim at his competitors’ unsavory design decisions, but a decade after that presentation, his company continues to honor his stance. At Apple’s keynote event on Tuesday, for instance, the brand is expected to do away with the Home button. Every day, an estimated 700 million iPhone owners poke at that shallow groove to unlock their phones, escape apps, multitask, and summon Siri. Anyone who chooses to upgrade will reportedly be instructed to follow a new routine, one that involves interacting with a virtual, gesture-based control center instead. The screen on the iPhone 8 (or whatever it’s going to be called) will reportedly be completely flat—a culmination of the company’s long-waged War on Buttons.

“That button was a huge part of its identity,” Snell, who now runs the site Six Colors, said. “We click that button to bail out of any phone experience. People may be rightfully concerned about that, because that’s something that you still have to adapt to.”

Apple has always been famous for slicing off essential parts of a product and calling it innovation. Recent victims of this yearly routine have included the headphone jack and the Escape key. And even as it eyes the elimination of the Home button, competing products like the Samsung S8 have already made the leap without much fanfare. But this elimination is of particular significance, not just because people are worried they won’t be able to navigate through their digital lives as easily, but also because the button is a beloved and nostalgic feature. In the history of consumer electronics, it has functioned as the first point of contact between people and their devices—whether that be the bulky plastic square you pushed to play an old cassette tape or the Nintendo 64 Z-button you tapped to shield your characters in Super Smash Bros.

The button has found a lot of weird and wonderful forms over the years. Its early iterations came in the form of mechanical switches that audibly snapped when you pushed them—the kind you might find on old-school mechanical keyboards. Those were eventually replaced by membrane keyboards, which were like pressure pads covered with a rubbery layer of keys. Those gave way to even thinner iterations called snap domes, in pursuit of tinier gadgets. As technology kept evolving, the button’s depth became more shallow, and their shapes less bulbous, until people like Jobs decided to transfer entire keyboards to capacitive touchscreens. “It’s been a pretty clear migration away from tactility,” Cormac Eubanks, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the hardware venture fund Root Ventures, told me via email. “This evolution has been driven by technology but also by a desire by all designers to make products as slim as possible.”

As the button slowly faded from high-tech consumer appliances, many consumers fought the trend. Enterprising tinkerers continue to refurbish old mechanical keyboards and sell them at a profit. “Few things in the computing world are as viscerally satisfying as typing on an old-school mechanical keyboard,” read a 2015 Wired report chronicling one IT professional’s side business. “That signature click-clack—probably louder than it should be in polite office society—generated by rapid-fire key presses with your flying fingers is something mostly lost to our touchscreens.” Electronics companies like Massdrop have built entire online communities of keyboard aficionados who will discuss a gadget’s spring force or keycap shape ad nauseum. All the while, fierce, hopeless BlackBerry loyalists have hung on to the concept of a physical smartphone keyboard. (Their most notable member was Kim Kardashian, who was able to buy old generations of the phone on eBay until last year.) In 2013 Ryan Seacrest launched Typo, a startup that made physical keyboard cases for the iPhone, and was promptly sued by BlackBerry for patent infringement.

Modern tech companies have acknowledged, in their own crafty ways, the desire for tactile interaction in modern technology. In 2015 Apple announced its latest iPhones would be equipped with 3D Touch, a feature that automatically offered tactile feedback every time you pressed your screen hard enough. Most gaming-console controllers provide a similar vibration-based feedback that help guide players’ experience in the games they’re playing and keep them focused on the action. And even as companies like Tesla have incorporated touch screens into modern-day vehicles, they have preserved the knobs and levers that help drivers control their cars without too much distraction.

“That’s a great example where physical controls that are tactile absolutely matter, because when you’re driving you have to keep your eyes on the road,” Snell said. “When I look down at a touchscreen in order to figure out how to change the volume on the radio, my eyes are off the road. But if it’s a knob and I can spin it, then my eyes stay on the road.”

In Eubanks’s mind, the lingering nostalgia for old-school buttons in the realm of personal computers is less about necessary function, and more centered around the human desire for mutual communication.

“Think about conversations you've had with people,” he wrote. “When someone looks at you blankly as you speak, you feel less connected to that conversation and to that person than when you are having a conversation where a person nods, smiles, says ‘Yeah, I know what you mean’ in agreement. This type of feedback is important in creating emotional connections with each other. The same is true of products. When you press a capacitive touch button and something changes on screen, that feels less satisfying than when that change is accompanied with a satisfying feel of a click and sound. When this happens, the product is saying: ‘I hear you.’”

In some cases, that level of feedback has been so important to consumers that it has even swayed anti-button companies like Apple to modify their futuristic designs. From trackpads to mice to tablets, the company has always scraped for ways to remove unsightly bumps on its products. In 2009 Apple tried to do the same for the third-generation of the iPod Shuffle. The gadget was nearly buttonless, relegating all the controls to the accompanying headphones. “It was like a teeny little stick with a couple buttons on it,” recalls MacRumors editor-in-chief Eric Slivka. “But there was no other play, pause, or volume or anything on the Shuffle itself. And people hated it.” The next iteration of the shuffle abandoned the experiment, and brought back the typical clickwheel format featured on previous iterations. “It was one of the rare times when Apple reverted and went back to the previous design,” Snell said. “It was a flop, because people didn’t really want an iPod shuffle with no buttons, they didn’t know how to use it.”

Whether that same about-face might happen if and when the Home button is finally erased from the front of the iPhone is unlikely. But there’s no question that Home button loyalists will be in good company when the time comes to commiserate.