Boy Genius Reports claims Apple will remove home buttons from its next revisions of iOS devices. This report has suspect timing, to say the least. It comes the day after new multitouch gestures for iOS were revealed, including a four-finger pinch that returns you to your home screen.

I’m thinking this is someone putting one and one together and getting three. Apple’s guiding principle has always been usability, but removing the home button would be problematic in two important areas:

  • If the OS locks up (which happens fairly regularly on iOS, especially when apps freeze), software gestures aren’t going to do anything. The home button is therefore a handy ‘quit’ override; in cases of extreme emergency, it can be used in combination with the sleep switch to force a device to reboot entirely.
  • Gestures are not easily discoverable, and the more complex the gesture the less likely someone is to discover it. Users don’t sit down with manuals (or even the small leaflets Apple ships with its products)—they just start using stuff. Single taps and swipes are where most users are at. In the current iOS, relatively few users even know about the multitasking bar, and even fewer know you can swipe that bar to access further controls. Forcing users to use a four-finger gesture to return to the home screen would therefore be a dangerous move by Apple.

Journo chum Gary Marshall notes on Twitter that there is another option, since Apple has a patent for an intelligent bezel corner. However, that wouldn’t necessarily improve things. If left blank, it’s just as hard to discover as complex gestures. If labelled, the aesthetics are the same anyway, but you lack the tactile response that’s important for the functions the hardware button provides access to.

UPDATE: John Gruber makes a good point, responding to the same piece, noting that forcing a complex pinch would be problematic on the small iPhone screen and a potential accessibility disaster on the iPad—what if the user doesn’t have enough fingers, or enough dexterity to perform the gesture?

UPDATE: On Twitter, smittytone says: “Anyone who thinks the iPad 2 won’t have a home button clearly hasn’t read the iOS 4.3 developer docs”. And Matt Gemmell says: “Another point re no-Home-button/accessibility for your post; blind people use Home to know which way up the thing is.”