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Will the iPad and iPhone home buttons go away? Probably not

As soon as I heard of the new iPad multi-touch gestures in the iOS 4.3 beta, which allow you to reach the home screen with a four- or five-finger gesture, I thought, "Well, that's it for the home button." Boy Genius Report also says it's heard from a source within Apple that the company is testing next-gen iPads and iPhones that don't have a home button, which seems to lend credence to the speculation. But does it make sense for Apple to abandon the home button now?

For the iPad, I'll give a qualified "Maybe, but probably not." For the iPhone, it's an unqualified "No." On the iPad, getting rid of the home button kind of makes sense, but you're not only making the device more complex to use by doing away with that single-use, very obvious button, you're also losing a lot of functionality. Although the iPad's new multi-touch gestures cover going to the home screen and switching between apps, look at the other functionality you're missing out on if you lose the home button:

  • No way to take screenshots (power/sleep + home)
  • No way to activate Voice Control (press and hold home)
  • No access to VoiceOver features (triple-click home)
  • No way to hard-reset (hold power/sleep + home until Apple logo appears)

Certainly Apple could find ways to program those functions into the iPad and iPhone by using additional multi-touch gestures, but it seems like doing so would add needless complexity to the device's control scheme (although Apple has made similar missteps before). Plus, those new four- and five-finger multi-touch gestures that make perfect sense on a large-screened, larger form factor device like the iPad make no sense on the iPhone's smaller screen. With no home button, how will you use the iPhone one-handed?

I agree with John Gruber of Daring Fireball's assessment: the home button isn't going anywhere. I could see Apple replacing the current clicker-style button with a touch-sensitive version like on the third-generation iPod, but doing away with the home button entirely comes with too many drawbacks and no discernible benefits. Besides that, the precedent has already been set on the Mac; although almost all MacBooks have had a multi-touch trackpad since early 2008, the specialized keyboard buttons for functions like Exposé and Dashboard haven't gone anywhere, nor has Apple done away with the Command-Tab gesture for switching between open applications.

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