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on Wed Jul 20, 2011 4:39 pm

iPhone 5

Apple has released the newest beta of their upcoming iOS 5 mobile operating system, and one of the quickly discovered new features is a gesture interface that provides the same functionality as the iPhone and iPad’s hardware buttons.

Listed under the Accessibility settings in the device’s setup area, the new “Assistive Touch” option places a floating button on the screen which allows users to use touch gestures to complete a variety of commands, including returning to the home screen, multitasking, changing the device’s volume and more. While it appears that Assistive Touch is targeted at those who have difficulty with hardware buttons, the feature appearing in this way has signaled to many that Apple is considering dropping hardware buttons in future devices.

There are some gaps in the Assistive Touch software, as would be expected from a beta release. It’s possible to create and save custom gestures for the interface, but as of yet there appears to be no way to actually assign it to do anything. The rest of the interface appears to be working perfectly, however, as users can make use of the Assistive Touch menu system to access four options: Home, Device, Gestures and Favorites.

The “Home” option does exactly what it sounds like, returning the user to the iPhone or iPad’s home screen – similar in function to the hardware button. “Device” offers a multitude of different controls, including those to lock the screen, to change the volume, a button that performs a “shake” of the device, and another to rotate the screen’s orientation. The “Gestures” menu shows options for three, four and five-fingered gestures, which have been popping up in the iPad 2 betas for iOS 5 and are expected to be coming to the device when iOS 5 is officially released. Finally, “Favorites” allows access to custom, saved gestures as well as a handful of other ones such as “pinch” and “swipe”.

Customers of Apple’s devices who may struggle with some or all of the hardware gestures – think elderly users and the “shake” function on an iPad – are likely to be very happy with the company’s implementation of these resources in iOS 5. While the rumor mill is likely to use Assistive Touch as Apple’s means to finally rid their devices of hardware buttons, there’s been no indication from the company that they ever plan to do so, and a great deal of users would be frustrated with the inability to adjust things like an iPhone’s volume without taking the device out of their pocket and accessing the screen. Assistive Touch does show that Apple is paying attention to its customer space, and that they have the skills to produce software interfaces that could eliminate hardware buttons in the future if that’s what the market dictates.

It’s tough to imagine a button-less iPod or iPhone, but this could be relatively feasible for the iPad which is screen-centric and virtually everything is done via the display. Only time will tell if Apple decides to eliminate hardware buttons entirely.

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