iPad

Apple iPad 3: Why the gossip can't be on the button

Speculation about Apple's imminent iPad 3 launch ranges from insightful to insane, but one of the major assumptions about the new tablet must surely be wide of the mark.

The image Apple added to the invite to Wednesday's launch event seems to suggest that there's no button on the iPad 3. Photo: Apple

We're a few days short of the launch of a new iPad and swathes of the internet are beside themselves with excitement. Rumour sites and blogs are in overdrive and "leaked" pictures of screens, circuit boards, camera parts and enclosures purportedly from the iPad 3 are everywhere.

Most of the iPad speculation and images are probably wide of the mark, a fraction may be accurate. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The power of rumour has long been a wonderful asset for the company. A vast global network of unpaid product evangelists is a boon any brand would love to boast. Yet, in more recent times, it has been a case of the power of wishful thinking rather than rumour.

You could argue the most fun about an Apple event are the rumour sites and their fantastical predictions of breathtaking features.

By the time the event comes around you know what you're going to get most of the time, because every possible option, feature and surprise has already been predicted in triplicate with Photoshopped images to help.

A slightly slimmer form factor, a couple of extra megapixels in the cameras and the mythical iPad Retina Display. Woe betide Apple should it ship something with a display boasting less than 300 pixels per inch, even though it's never been done before. No pressure.

When the product is finally announced, the web is typically disappointed that the processor is the wrong kind, the camera doesn't do HD video or the device doesn't hover obediently around your head.

Key focus for iPad speculation

The most interesting rumour this time isn't the addition of a new feature or the increase of something's capacity or resolution of something else but rather the removal of something, other than the physical size of the device.

Predictions abound that Apple may be considering the removal of the home button that sits at the bottom of the face of each iOS device.

There are two main reasons for this suspicion. The first is that Android and many competing tablets have eschewed the physical button on the front of the device. The second, a more pervasive reason in the last week is that the image Apple added on the invite to Wednesday's event seems to suggest that there's no button (see right).

There are few reasons why this apparently trivial change is unlikely to happen.

First, as a highly secretive company that keeps its cards close to its chest I think there's no chance that Apple would actually show a new product detail in a picture on an event invite. Things may have changed since Tim Cook took the reins - but surely not that much.

Secondly, a soft home button lets Android tablets differentiate devices from the iPad and make more of the front display real estate. Putting the button on the rear, as on the Motorola Xoom, or at the bottom of the device like the Kindle Fire sets it apart from the iPad and aims to give it a cleaner look.

The concept of a no-button iPad

As such, the idea of a no-button device may be an attractive one for geeks but not for Apple's marketing team. The thought of hiding the button at the bottom or rear of the device seems more pleasing aesthetically to the technically erudite but less so to most users.

What about people with diminished use of their hands or those with a restricted understanding of technology? While both are important to Apple this second group is truly key.

There are problems going buttonless. When I first picked up a Motorola Xoom, it took me a while to find the button to turn it on. Perhaps it's because I'm an idiot or perhaps it was because I'm used to having the button on the iPad. But that and the three standard Android buttons in the bottom left don't provide the user with the same level of clarity or reassurance.

Reassurance is a key concept here. I've written before that iPad is also a computer designed for people who have no truck with the whole idea of computing but want all the cool stuff that computers can do.

Home button on iOS devices

The home button on iOS devices is the single most important usability feature Apple has come up with in years. It's so mind-bogglingly simple but effective it makes me want to burst into spontaneous applause. Its value becomes apparent when showing the non-tech savvy how the iPad is meant to work. If you get lost, you can get home with a single press of the big, round button.

Steve Jobs put it in precisely these terms at the 2007 launch of the iPhone when he said: "It takes you home from wherever you are." It's such a powerful, reassuring concept, one that I use on the iPad automatically and a button so fundamental to the iPad user experience that I'd be lost if it were taken from me.

Apple's marketing demographic has expanded from a tech-savvy loyal base to a vast non-technical one that just wants to get on with stuff and ignore the operating system and hardware. If the button were to go it would be a mistake.