Apple's latest mobile operating system, iOS 4.3, has gained new four- and five-finger multitouch gestures for the iPad, which have great potential to replace some functionality of the device's "home" button.
The rumor mill now suggests that these new gestures are designed to make it possible to eliminate the home button from the iPad altogether, and perhaps also on the iPhone and iPod touch. We don't see Apple going this route, however -- at the very least not in the near term.
Boy Genius Report got the ball rolling by citing a source claiming that Apple is already testing iPads and iPhones without home buttons. It also reported that "it's possible we will see this new change materialize with the next-generation iPad and iPhone devices set to launch this year."
There are at least a couple reasons why Apple dropping the home button won't happen this year, though. One reason is that the new multitouch gestures introduced in iOS 4.3 beta are still being tested for compatibility and are considered a developer "preview" of new functionality.
According to a note that accompanied the beta release:
"This beta release contains a preview of new Multi-Touch gestures for iPad. You can use four or five fingers to pinch to the Home Screen; swipe up to reveal the multitasking bar; and swipe left or right between apps. We are providing this preview before releasing them to the public to understand how these gestures work with your apps. Test them and give us your feedback on the Apple Developer Forums."
This suggests that the new gestures may not even be ready for release in iOS 4.3. It's possible that these gestures won't be available to end users until later versions of iOS are released.
Another reason it is unlikely to happen this year is that new products are probably just a few months away from shipping, and likely to begin production in just a couple weeks, and have had their designs locked in for some time now. It's doubtful Apple would ship the iPad with such a radical change in user interaction without thoroughly testing that the multitouch gestures work as well as (or better than) the various home button clicks.
As for these gestures replacing the home button on the iPhone or iPod Touch, it's worth noting that these gestures are currently only available on the iPad. Using four or five fingers on an iPhone would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible -- the iPad just has more room to make such gestures comfortable to use. Having to use four or five fingers at a time would also rule out one-handed operation.
Still, there are some reasons Apple may never ditch the hardware button. Having the gestures available in addition to using the home button is definitely cool, but a hardware home button works even when multifinger gestures are impractical or impossible.
For instance, Daring Fireball notes that a user may not have four or five fingers on a hand to use. Additionally, some features, including accessing search or taking screen shots, don't appear to have multitouch equivalents. Other features that rely on the home button, such as recovery mode or a hard reset, would likely be impossible without a hardware button.
Apple might indeed be testing prototypes without home buttons, but that is no guarantee that a button-free iDevice will be released to the public. For the reasons cited above, we don't see Apple ditching the hardware home button anytime soon -- if ever.