Hot-button issue: iPhone 6S hints at an end to the home button

A few of the additions to Apple’s latest smartphone, which goes on sale Friday, suggest big design changes may be coming to future generations of the phone. That may be a good thing.

When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he touted the elegance of its design, particularly how simple it was to navigate the smartphone from a single point.

“On the front, there’s only one button,” Jobs said. “We call it the home button. Takes you home from wherever you are. And that’s it.”

That was a radical design, given at the time that Nokia’s and BlackBerry’s top-selling smartphones required pressing lots of buttons and keys. Eight years and nine generations of the iPhone later, Apple’s round home button has remained a focal point for navigating the smartphone and a design feature that’s helped set the Cupertino, California, company apart from competitors.

But the 4.7-inch iPhone 6S, which goes on sale Friday alongside its larger iPhone 6S Plus sibling, may mark the beginning of the end of the home button. Some of the new functionality in the iPhone 6S — including the pressure-sensitive touchscreen and expanded use of the voice-activated Siri virtual assistant — may be laying the groundwork for a radical shift in design by diminishing the need for a physical home button.

Why kill such a visually distinctive feature? For one, eliminating the home button would give Apple more screen real estate to play with, allowing it to pack a larger display on a smaller body. That would translate into a device that you can still hold and navigate using one hand even if the screen gets bigger.

A buttonless iPhone also would fall in line with Apple’s design preference for a clean look.

lg-g4-iphone-6-plus-1856-001.jpg
The iPhone 6 Plus (right) and the LG G4 both pack a 5.5-inch display, but the G4 has a smaller chassis.

That’s not to say Apple is certain to throw out the physical home button with next year’s iPhone 7 — or even later models. The world’s second-largest smartphone maker (after Samsung Electronics) gets a lot of recognition value out of its unique home button. Also, several pieces would have to fall into place before Apple would move away from its home button, including the integration of the fingerprint sensor into the screen and the decision to create an even larger display.

Even though the iPhone dominates high-end smartphone sales, Apple needs to keep shaking things up to maintain consumer interest. The company introduced a new Apple TV streaming-media box and a larger iPad Pro tablet earlier this month, but the iPhone is the money spinner, generating more than two-thirds of Apple’s revenue. As of March, Apple had sold 700 million iPhones. The removal of the home button would mark a major transformation for such a significant product.

“It would certainly be a radical change to the way iPhones look,” said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. “But Apple isn’t averse to making these big changes either.”

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

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