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The End Of Buttons: The New Gesture-Control Era

BlackBerry smartphones on a table during a "BlackBerry Brunch" in June in Berlin.
Timur Emek
Getty Images
BlackBerry smartphones on a table during a "BlackBerry Brunch" in June in Berlin.

Last week, BlackBerry put up a for-sale sign after many years of decline. The once revolutionary BlackBerry was the first smartphone addiction for so many Americans — you were connected all the time! — and even when iPhone ushered in a slimmer, sleeker, faster era, a few holdouts (many on Capitol Hill) continued to stubbornly keep a BlackBerry in their pockets.

But looking back, it's clear BlackBerry devices began to lose consumers more than half a decade ago. That's when the iPhone's touch screen became the user interface de rigueur and the Blackberry, with its keyboard and buttons, became almost instantly outdated. Hemispheres Magazine takes note:

"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."

So it goes with technology. The switch gave way to the button, the button gave way to a touch screen, and soon, touching screens may seem old-school: Gesture and voice control are the "waves" of the future.

The newest smartphones are abandoning both physical and on-screen buttons in favor of gestures. "[S]crolling, swiping, tapping, pinching, flicking — are becoming the dominant form of the smartphone user interface," writes Rani Molla for technology site GigaOM.

As with so much behavior change ushered in by technology, the change happens before we take wider notice. But in cars, those physical buttons have been disappearing; gaming turned to wave commands with Xbox Kinect years ago; and button-cluttered remote controls are giving way to smartphone controls. Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 8, is flat and without button icons to click. Google Glass, the revolutionary spectacle-computer, is largely controlled with voice commands. And with each new phone, like the Moto X, the range of gesture commands to interface with it is increasing.

This creates challenges for user interface designers, who still have a ways to go to understand which gesture commands are likely to be both precise and natural enough for wide user adoption. Reviews for Leap Motion, a new device that turns gestures into digital commands, have been mixed. But the technological shift is afoot. Already, buttons seem passe.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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