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Buttons on smartphones: is their time up?

Buttons on smartphones: is their time up?

Back in 2006, Nokia conducted some research that will haunt them forever. According to the Espoo-based company's study, there was no market for touchscreen phones. Not then. And not in the near future.

Some five years later, as Nokia grapples with falling market share and plummeting sales, it has yet to fully recover from the consequences of heeding what its report appeared to be telling them.

These days of course, it’s harder to find a phone without a touchscreen than it is to find one without, as post-2007 the public took to the once unfamiliar user interface with gusto.

Latterly, it’s looked increasingly like we’re on the cusp of another shift in how we interact with our phones. One that seems to be pushing us incrementally closer to all-touchscreen kits for the first time ever.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen Nokia buck its rep for being a tech laggard by ditching a home button for the forthcoming N9. And home-button free Android efforts from Android manufacturers are reportedly on the cards soon, too.

nokia n9 slanted

We could also be due Windows Mango handsets sans a home button from Samsung and HTC. And, less surprising given Apple’s form for stripped down design, rumours suggest Cupertino could spring its tilt at a home button-free phone with the iPhone 5.

Clearly then something is afoot. But why has everyone seemingly suddenly decided as one that buttons are surplus to requirements? And what’s in it for the phone-makers? And much more importantly, what’s in it for us?

Well, let’s start with manufacturers and their motives. For a start, there’s obviously real kudos to be had for the first handset to market without a home button. You’ve only got to look at the glowing reception that the Nokia N9 got for proof of that.

Unveiling its product first meant that not only did Nokia get one over rivals. It achieved the not inconsiderable feat of making poor old, superannuated Nokia look genuinely forward-thinking at a time when its every move is under incredibly close scrutiny from shareholders and tech experts alike.

Microsoft’s rumoured decision to clear the way for all-touchscreen phones is also prudent. All being well, it will allow manufacturing partners’ design teams a long leash to come up with kits that really standout in the looks department.

Windows Phone 7 Mango

That’s a key consideration in a post-iPhone market that’s increasingly about cutting a dash. And given the staid rep Microsoft has burdened itself with, you can’t underestimate the potential of some funky looking phones to up its hip quotient.

Then there’s the cost savings to consider. It undoubtedly costs more to install and implement physical buttons than software buttons. So the industry as a whole has much to gain if it can convince us that no buttons on phones is what we want.

Consumers have more to gain than phone makers, though. We’ll concede that there is something comforting about physical buttons – especially a home button and especially for smartphone novices. But for us that’s more than made up for by the advantages.

Naturally, it’s us who benefit from smart looking new phones to buy. But that’s not the main thing to look forward to. That’s the fact that stripping away buttons means there’s extra room for acres more screen real estate. That’ll mean a better mobile video and web browsing experience - something that’s win-win at a time when those functions are front and centre in consumers' minds when it comes to choosing a phone.

Mobile gamers able to make hay too. And not just because genuinely lavish games like Infinity ‘I can’t believe that’s running on a phone’ Blade will look better. It’ll also mean that the days of accidentally quitting your game when your hand wanders over to the touch-sensitive home buttons will be gone forever.

infinity blade marrow

Frankly, as committed gamers that’s reason enough to get us on board on its own. Whether other consumers the average Joe will be convinced is another matter, however. That'll depend just as much on how phone makers execute their button-free phones as whether the mass market is feels ready to give up the comforting, reassuring feeling of having something physical to press.

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