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Stop the Presses

How the iPhone ushered in the end of the once-beloved button

Author Paul Ford Illustration Borja Bonaque

tech_illo

Sleek, smooth, impossibly fast, totally connected. That’s how I would have described a BlackBerry back in 2003. A couple of years later, having fondled my first iPhone, I changed my mind. Suddenly, the BlackBerry appeared outdated, with its keyboard and buttons.

This is the problem with technology. One day you’re in your cave sharpening rocks, enjoying how pointy they are, and then new neighbors move in a few caves down. They have really nice blades. Light, smooth, powerful. And that’s when you realize you’re a Neanderthal.

Which is pretty much what happened with the previous versions of the BlackBerry—and in particular with its primary mode of operation: the button.

A century ago, the button represented everything that was sleek and futuristic in technology. We already had the switch, which heralded the advent of electrical power—the instantaneous provision of light and heat. The button took the switch even further, to the extent that it muddled the connection between cause and effect (hit one button and it rings a doorbell; hit another and it drops a bomb). “The button is a metaphor,” says Bill DeRouchey, a principal designer at General Electric. “It abstracts intentions and actions.”

Which is just what you need to launch an information revolution. Over the course of the 20th century, the button transformed technology after technology. In the 1960s, phones made the leap from dials to buttons. (Remember rotary phones?) Computers, which started as banks of switches, sprouted keyboards (banks of buttons with letters on them). We used buttons to select television shows to watch and pushed buttons to order soft drinks from vending machines. Then came the BlackBerry, which bristled with buttons.

And then, with the iPhone, everything changed. As a descendant of both the computer and the phone, Apple’s superproduct had a big button at the bottom, plus a switch at the top and some tiny little controls. You could even argue that the entire screen is a button of sorts. The point, though, is that we didn’t need to rely on just buttons anymore; we could tap, drag and pinch to operate the phone. The moment Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld 2007 and brandished his nifty little device, the button was on notice. Fingers, with touchscreens, became the new buttons.

Yet habit does not always give way so easily. While the iPhone may have ushered in an era of virtual operation, we still require that our tapping produce an audible button-like click. In the realm of design, too, we haven’t quite excised our century-long infatuation with the button. Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile (disclosure: I wrote the foreword), points out that we are still a long way from the kind of minimalism promised by the post-button era. Right now, she says, mobile interfaces are characterized by “giant Fisher Price buttons—big, round, infantile things.”

But not for long. Look at Windows 8 and you will get a sense of where we are headed in terms of design: the flat, the smooth, the buttonless. Then there’s Google Glass, the magic spectacles that will someday (we’re told) project all manner of information directly into a user’s field of vision, either automatically or via voice command. As far as the button is concerned, Google Glass seems to be sounding the death knell.

Google could connect all sorts of keyboards to the device (there’s even been talk of a “virtual” keyboard that’s projected by laser), but you probably won’t type that much in Google Glass. Maybe we’ll tap our heads when we want to see the news, or hum a little song when we want to send email. Maybe we won’t do anything at all and the glasses will react to the time of day or where we are, or to our thoughts. Aesthetically, too, we don’t really know what this so-called “augmented reality” is going to look like. As with many newborns, it’ll probably start life a little weird-looking, maybe even ugly.

What is certain is that we’re in the midst of a great technological shift. Already, the physical manipulation of machines seems kind of passé—like those BlackBerrys we went crazy over in the early-2000s. As DeRouchey puts it, “The button has gone from solid, to liquid, to air.” We can also be fairly sure that the transition won’t be seamless, since every technical advance has its clunkers. And this uncertainty, the prospect of ambition stumbling over limitation, is part of the thrill.

Paul Ford, a New York City–based writer and computer programmer, refuses to upgrade his cellphone. These days he’s writing a book about Web pages and spending too much time on Twitter (@ftrain).

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