Why Button-less Phones Could Be the Future

The technology isn’t here yet, but recent developments show the path to a button-free phone.

A Samsung with an X over a button.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Samsung.

Smartphones are evolving. They’re increasingly designed to withstand the rigors of near-constant use. Their screens are getting stronger. Device makers have taken steps like eliminating the headphone jack or minimizing the number of buttons on handsets to make phones more water resistant. There’s one intriguing way that phone makers could take the notion to the extreme: by getting rid of buttons altogether. The move may sound revolutionary or improbable, but it’s not. A button-less future may be some years away, but there are signs in recent features that it’s where smartphones are headed.

The first was the elimination of the home button. Faulty home buttons used to be a common failure point in smartphones. Press it too many times (or accidentally spill a sugary drink on your phone) and the button would cease functioning. Beginning with the iPhone 7, Apple replaced its physical home button with a touch-sensitive alternative that simulated the feel of a real button press through haptic feedback. Samsung, meanwhile, built a pressure-sensitive virtual home button into the screen of its Galaxy S8.

More recent phones take it even further. They’ve removed even the idea of a home button on the front of the screen. The iPhone X uses facial recognition and swiping navigation gestures, and if leaks prove correct, the upcoming Google Pixel 3 also shuns a home button in favor of Android Pie’s new swipe-based navigation scheme. Other Android phones have approached it differently. Rather than a traditional home button, they merely use a fingerprint sensor on the rear of the device in order to unlock the screen. This sensor doesn’t depress at all—it simply reacts to your touch.

Wraparound displays are an emerging technology that could also hasten the death of smartphone button. Samsung’s version of a wraparound display, as described in a patent published in December, would wrap around one side of a device and extend part way around its back. Its Galaxy Edge line of smartphones is a first step in this direction. These handsets have a display that curves slightly over its edges, allowing you to configure that edge panel as a shortcut menu. A swipe over the side of the device brings up this panel so you can quickly launch favorite apps or settings.

Apple may be working on a similar idea, according to its intellectual property filings. In May, an Apple patent for a wraparound display surfaced. In its description of the technology, the display would allow the company to have a handset with two separate user interfaces—one for the front of the device and one for its sides. In a related patent, Apple described a method for a touch-sensitive mobile device bezel. Both of these ideas show how future iPhones could add shortcuts or functionality to the sides of devices. In doing so, this could also replace the need for physical buttons along those sides. Of course, patent applications are merely an indicator a company has explored a particular idea, not a guarantee that feature will ever make its way into a finished product.

The move to eliminate buttons would have numerous benefits. It would make phones virtually impermeable to damage from water or debris, eliminate hardware failing points, and offer a more personalized user experience. (Paired with wireless charging, a phone could one day be a completely solid, port-and-button-free device.) Like we’ve seen with virtual home buttons and fingerprint sensors, eliminating a button doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating a spot on the device you can feel with your fingertip. For things like the power button and volume adjustment, grooves, texture, or indentations in a handset could still indicate the placement of these functions even if a physical button has been removed. But by using a wraparound display or pressure sensor on the side of a device, it may be possible to reroute what traditional buttons accomplish. Instead of a mute button, you could use that area to turn on and off GPS tracking or airplane mode with a long press or specific tap; instead of a volume slider, you could use that area for adjusting screen brightness.

As we’ve seen with the shift to biometric sensors, such technologically advanced hardware changes take time. The wraparound displays Apple and Samsung patented, for example, were both originally filed in 2016. Engineering a curved display that also accurately translates touch functions is a huge challenge, but each year we get closer to such technologies becoming viable in consumer products. The move from physical home buttons to virtual home buttons and fingerprint sensors has also taken time. But now that a fingerprint can be detected on the rear of a device, it’s feasible that as the technology shrinks and improves, it could move to the sides of a smartphone as well. A button-less phone would potentially be less susceptible to damage, which is useful for its longevity, but perhaps more importantly, it would open up the possibility for more creative smartphone experiences that better suit your individual needs. While smartphone-makers are striving to make phones more durable, they’re also constantly working to make them more useful, too. Eliminating hardware buttons is one more way companies could do that.