- The iPhone 15 may replace physical buttons with sensors and Haptic Touch.
- Apple has slowly converted many buttons, and even trackpads, to switchless designs.
- Solid-state controls, like the Force Touch trackpad, are often more durable.
The next iPhone could be entirely bereft of physical buttons, with volume and power controlled by virtual haptic switches.
You may have thought that Apple’s War on Buttons ended when Joni Ive split, but it seems to be lumbering on. According to well-sourced analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the iPhone 15 may ditch its remaining physical volume and power switches in favor of touch controls with haptic feedback. This could possibly make the iPhone more durable, but it could also make it a lot more annoying.
“Its decision to remove the physical home button with a haptic engine was in the right direction, and time has proved it. Mechanical home buttons used to fail all the time, and the haptic button got rid of the problem,” technology journalist Ahmed N.Khan told Lifewire via email.
Apple has done this many times before. In fact, the number of virtual buttons may rival the number of real mechanical buttons across its lineup (if you don’t count keyboards). In 2015, Apple replaced the MacBook’s mechanical trackpad button with its Force Touch trackpad, which was essentially an iPhone-style touchscreen painted silver. These trackpads had no moving parts. The click was provided by a small vibration unit Apple has since put into many devices, calling it a Taptic Engine.
Mechanical home buttons used to fail all the time, and the haptic button got rid of the problem.
The haptic feedback provided by the Taptic Engine is convincing enough that it feels just like you clicked a regular button. If you still have an iPhone 7 or 8 with a virtual home button, try pressing that button when the phone is powered off. It’s dead. Nothing happens.
Apple has since put virtual buttons into various devices. The Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, the squeezy-shaft button on the AirPods Pro, and so on. The Taptic Engine also provides vibration alerts and tactile keyboard feedback on the iPhone.
Better Without Buttons
The biggest advantage of a virtual button with a Taptic click is durability. I had trouble with most of my MacBook trackpads over the years until the Force Touch version replaced them. With a virtual button, there are no moving parts to break. It may also be possible to move those buttons into places better suited to ergonomic use rather than because that’s where they fit.
Take the volume control on the new AirPods Pro 2. These detect a short swipe up or down and increase or decrease the volume by one click for each swipe. Imagine being able to swipe anywhere on either side of your iPhone or even the top and bottom edges when watching a video in landscape orientation. That would be pretty neat.
But there are downsides, too. The biggest is that a virtual switch must have some kind of software loaded to recognize your button press. A physical button can be hardwired to a hardware function, like holding down the MacBook’s power/TouchID button on startup to get into a special setup menu.
When Apple introduced the solid-state virtual home button in the iPhone 7, it had to rejigger its emergency controls. To force-restart the device if it locked up, you used to be able to press and hold the home button and sleep/wake buttons for a while to trigger a reboot. The iPhone 7 replaced that method by holding the volume down and sleep/wake buttons.
On phones that run iOS 16, restarting your iPhone is more like entering a cheat code on an old SEGA or Nintendo console. According to Apple’s support pages, you have to press and release the volume up button, then the volume down button, then hold the side button, and then release the side button when the Apple logo appears.
Imagine that dance if there are no physical buttons left to press.
And if Apple does go the route of using swipe controls to change the volume, then you lose valuable spatial cues. It’s easy to locate the volume buttons by sight and touch. You can also use them to orient the iPhone in the dark. This is important for accessibility as well as usability.
It will be interesting to see how Apple solves these problems. Hopefully, it will be another wow solution, like the Dynamic Island, and not a lame duck like the MacBook’s defunct Touch Bar.