A New Era of Smartphone Operation

The iPhone X and Android P are laying the groundwork for a period dominated by gesture navigations.

Touchscreen phone animation.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Buttons have long been a mainstay of our smartphone experience. Then, in September, Apple introduced a suite of new navigation gestures it on the iPhone X in lieu of a home button. Now Google’s Android P is following its lead. In the next major update to the Android operating system, it will lose the signature trio of virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen—the back button, home button, and app switcher—in favor of swipe-based on-screen navigation. According to The Verge, this “completely revamps the core navigation” of your Android smartphone.

Unlike iOS, which did away with the idea of the home button entirely, Android P will still offer some semblance of a virtual home button you can tap to return to your phone’s home screen or long-press to launch Google Assistant. Now, however, you can also half swipe upward to go the “Overview” screen (the multitasking screen) or full swipe upward to open your device’s app drawer. You can also swipe to the right to flip through your recently used apps or, as before, swipe downward from the top of the screen for the notifications tray. The back button previously located semi-permanently in the bottom left of your phone’s screen is gone, although some apps may still offer an on-screen back button you can use.

The goal of these changes, according to the company, is to make Android simpler and more approachable. The change also frees up space on the screen for other purposes: In Android P, the spot where the multitasking button used to reside in the lower right will now sometimes house a rotation lock button instead. The new gestures additionally allow for speedier navigation and a more flexible interface—once users have acclimated to the changes. And these new gestures, compared to those made on the iPhone X last fall, aren’t considerably drastic. The iPhone X was the first iOS device to completely do away with a persistent on-device home button. Replacing its functionality with gestures was a radical change. On Android, the home button has been virtual on most devices for several years, and thanks to Android’s flexibility, some models have already implemented similar gesture-based navigations. For some users, the change will feel like a natural evolution, not a jarring about-face.

The removal of these virtual buttons is part of a larger trend. It started with a number of apps embracing this idea: Tinder, with its swipe-left, swipe-right interface for selecting romantic matches; Snapchat, whose original app interface befuddle the olds and intuitively delighted the youngs (and whose newer less-beloved interface still employs gesture-based navigations to get to various sections of the app); even Instagram, with buttons in the upper corners of its app for Stories and Instagram Direct, lets you alternatively swipe right or left from the app’s feed to get to these panes.

The early days of the smartphone largely replicated experiences on the desktop, shrunken down and made touch-friendly for the device’s smaller display. But the iPhone celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017, and the Android platform turns 10 this year. With a decade of smartphone use at hand, OS makers are making more radical changes to that experience based on how usage has evolved. While it may take hours or days to make a new swiping gesture habit—like Android P’s new upward half swipe for accessing the app switcher—ultimately it’s an action we’re familiar with thanks to the lead set by pioneering mobile apps and other existing on-screen navigations. Buttons will likely never leave the smartphone entirely—“taps” are the other half of the touchscreen experience after all. But swiping is increasingly proving to be an efficient, effective alternative to some previously button-based navigations. The iPhone X and Android P are setting the stage for a new era in smartphone operation.