A screed on buttonless phones

June 05, 2020 // By Samuel Sheng
As mechanical buttons become more archaic, designers continue to plot out new ways to eliminate them on nearly all devices. But as the shift toward sleek buttonless devices continues, creating a user experience on par with physical buttons is becoming more complicated than anticipated.

There’s just something about buttons. Perhaps it’s the fact that they interrupt an otherwise-smooth surface, marring our sense of the aesthetic. Perhaps it’s that we resent the fact that buttons are functionally static, requiring us to hunt for the tiny little thing that will turn on our brand-new widget. Or perhaps it’s simply that a switch is the ultimate relic in the age of electricity, the first (and, at one time, only) way mankind had to control the flow of mighty electricity.

Whatever the reason, there’s an ongoing war on buttons, as product engineers and industrial designers forever try to remove them from devices. It wasn’t always this way. Once, an array of buttons was considered futuristic. Now it’s considered dated and passé. For better or worse, buttons are disappearing from, or being virtualized in, our devices, particularly in smartphones. First, the iPhone eliminated the chiclet keyboard so prevalent in the Blackberrys or Treos of the early 2000s, replacing it with a touchscreen. The next to go was the physical home button in the iPhone 7, replaced by a force sensor and a haptics motor—virtualized button clicks. The iPhone X eliminated even that, to be replaced by swipe gestures from every angle imaginable. Google introduced the virtual "squeeze" button in the Pixel 2 that would call up the virtual assistant. And now, the last holdouts - the power and volume keys - appear that they will finally succumb.

Huawei has the Mate 30 Pro. Xiaomi has the Mi Mix Alpha. Vivo has the Apex and the Nex3. At the risk of being branded Luddites, others have commented on the trend toward buttonless phones, lamenting the fact that the buttons are being taken away (iPhone comment on removal of physical home button).

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