Ice Cream Sandwich will be the first phone version of Android to support virtual buttons. It seems like a lot of people don’t "get" the whole idea behind them. If used correctly, virtual buttons will be way better than the painted on Back/Home/Menu/Search we have now. So I figured I would lay out the benefits for everyone and hopefully start a nice discussion.

For starters, virtual buttons are much better UI

  • They can change orientation with the phone so they are always in the same place.
  • Situational buttons (like Menu and Search) can disappear when they are unusable. You’ll no longer have to guess if Menu will do something.
  • It’s always consistent. OEMs can’t mess with the button order anymore. In fact, if you want to customize the order because you're used to one or the other, you should now be able to (and if Google won't let us, I'm sure Android developers and root will).
  • They could give you much richer information. Right now, it’s very hard to know what the Back button will do. A bit of text saying what will happen would help immensely. For instance, “Quit” when Back will close an app (or it could turn red or something) or “Inbox” when it will bounce you back to your Gmail inbox. iOS (yes, I know, it'll be OK) has a much friendlier back button in that regard.

iphone-camera-privacy

Virtual buttons will help out the hardware side of things immensely

  • They’re a big boost to hardware flexibility. Right now, those 4 buttons are a major hurdle to “Can this run Android?” Sure, you could hack Android onto something, but without those 4 buttons, it will be a crappy experience. With virtual buttons, all you need to bring is a touchscreen, and Android will bring the rest. Android is supposed to run on everything, virtual buttons will enable that.
  • More space on the phone gets dedicated to the screen. That means less work for the OEMs and fewer components. Also thinner bezels, sexier looking devices, and bigger screens on the same size phones.
  • Bigger screens on smaller phones. Today, a 4.5-inch phone is pretty large, but having smaller bezels means you can fit a 4.5-inch screen in a much smaller package. For instance, the iPhone and the Atrix are about the same size, but the Atrix packs an extra half inch of screen because the bezel is so much smaller.

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  • And most importantly: it’s cool. It gets us a step closer to Tony Stark’s phone.

iron-man-2-case-study--perceptionnyc

You’ve also got to hope that the idea of buttonless phones will trigger a bezel thinness race between the OEMs, with them all trying to hide as many front phone components as possible. I know we all have a collective affinity for minimalism. Hopefully this leads to much nicer phone design.

The one bad thing is that, yes, it will steal some pixels (although this will probably be mitigated by the bigger screens and smaller bezels), but that’s nothing autohide can’t fix.

And now - discuss away.

Note: I also posted this on reddit.