Are smartphones headed toward a button-less future?

You may soon have to say goodbye to the physical volume rocker and power button on the sides of your phone

With every passing year there's a new trend in the smartphone industry. Last year was all about the notch and 18:9 aspect ratio screens. This year was about pop-up selfie cameras, triple and even quad rear cameras and punch hole displays. And now as we are about to enter 2020, a new trend seems to be emerging in the smartphone world. It's not very mainstream yet, but it's slowing picking up.

In the world of technology, minimalist design is favored over gaudiness. And in keeping with the "less is more" philosophy, many smartphone brands have eliminated stuff that can easily be replaced by an even advanced alternative solution. Think of the beloved 3.5mm headphone jack that Apple first removed back in 2016 with its iPhone 7.

Apple is even being rumored to omit the charging port in 2021, but that's still a rumor and still a full one or two years away from where we stand today. And while it won't be surprising to see an increase in the number of camera sensors on phones, one thing that could be a major omission are the physical buttons. Yes, the old and tactile volume rocker and power button could give way to touch sensitive sensors on future phones, and the prospects look pretty promising already.

iphone 6s
An iPhone 6s Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr

Less is more

There are a lot of conspiracy theories behind the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack on flagship smartphones. Some say it's a way for the companies to sell their wireless earbuds, as the customer has no other option than to opt for a wireless earphone, but the brands say that they had to do it to fit in more components by saving the space, or accommodate a bigger battery by utilizing the saved space. They also claim that it's a step towards going completely wireless. Whatever the case maybe, smartphone manufacturers are increasingly removing the jack irrespective of the reason.

Coming to the topic of physical buttons, a lot of people still miss the clicky, tactile feeling of their old Blackberry, but we've compromised the feel for a bigger screen and some virtual keyboards now come at least a little close to physical one thanks to their haptic feedbacks. Now, what does removing the volume rocker and power button mean? We'll it means the display curvature can be stretched even further than what we've come to see with the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note 10s.

There are button-less smartphones already in the market

In fact, Chinese smartphone maker Oppo already has a button less smartphone called the Nex 3 and sister brand Vivo also revealed a similar button-less smartphone called Vivo APEX 2019. Xiaomi too has a button-less smartphone where called the Mi MIX Alpha where the display curves from the front to the back, making the phone look like a piece of tech from 2030.

The curved displays are being called 'waterfall' curved displays by some manufacturers due to their extreme angles of curvature. Another manufacturer that has utilized the button-less technology is Asus which uses "Air Triggers" along the its top edge as virtual buttons on its gaming-centric ROG 2 smartphone.

2020 will be the year of button-less smartphones?

In the next year, we might see more such smartphones and what about the clicky feel you may ask? Well, that will be taken care of by taptic engines such as the one found on Apple iPhone 7 home button, which gives you the feel of a press without actually being pressed.
The trend of button-less smartphones is only set to grow in 2020 and already several chip makers are working on sensors that make it possible. Recently, a start-up called UltraSense Systems released a sensor that aims to eliminate the need for mechanical buttons on the sides of smartphones.

Technology will be based on Ultrasonic Sound Waves

Founded by semiconductor industry veterans from InvenSense, a company that supplied motion sensors to phone makers such as Apple, the startup is the latest to join the race to replace physical buttons with technology based on ultrasonic sound waves.

The company has already released a chip the size of the head of a ballpoint pen which will allow users to tap the frame of the phone or the curved screen rather than physical buttons to increase or decrease the volume levels, take pictures and so on. The chip which works via ultrasonic sound waves works regardless of the phones body material, whether steel, aluminum, glass or even plastic. This means not just phones with curved displays but even those with conventional flat displays can do without the physical buttons on the sides.

Going button-less will likely also improve the water resistance capability of smartphones. But are these virtual buttons are worthy substitute to physical touchy-feely buttons? Well, just as we have gotten used to the virtual keyboards on our phones, we will get used to these virtual buttons as time passes. But the future does look interesting indeed.