Apple patents buttonless controls, but I hope they stay the hell away from iPhone 13

First they came for our iPhone headphone jacks. Now they want our buttons?

iPhone 12 in blue with buttons showing
(Image credit: Future)

In the future, it's possible that Apple devices won't have proper clicky buttons on the side like they do now – but could still have controls on the edge. Instead, the devices would have “invisible backlit holes”, which sounds like a Muse song but isn’t. The virtual buttons would appear when required and would vanish when the sensor no longer detected your hand.

Spotted by AppleInsider, a newly uncovered patent suggests Apple has at least considered a buttonless phone, but like all Apple patents it’s just as likely that Apple thought about it, decided not to do it and patented the tech anyway. And I really hope so, because I don’t want a buttonless iPhone 13.

According to Apple’s patent, “Disappearing button or slider”, the idea is to make everything sleeker without losing functionality. “One challenge with these known input devices is that they may detract from the aesthetics of the device by interrupting the continuity of the device housing,” it says. “Besides the obvious aesthetic advantages of having a seamless design, a seamless design may have improved functionality and/or durability. For example, a traditional mechanical key pad can wear out over time and/or be ruined by dirt or moisture entering into the openings in the device housing. These openings are necessary to accommodate the traditional keys and buttons.”

And that’s true, but I bet none of the Apple execs use their iPhone to take photographs of their gas and electric meters in a dark cupboard like I had to do this morning. Being able to control the camera with an actual button I could find and press was exactly what I needed, and it’s exactly what I need when I want to adjust the volume of my earbuds without looking at my phone, because that’s how I’ve adjusted the volume since the 1970s and I’m as likely to start tapping earpieces or rolling the Digital Crown on my Apple Watch as I am to use words like “based” and post things on TikTok.

I’m all for sleek devices but sometimes function matters more to me than form – so while I do like my wireless earbuds I’m still annoyed at Apple for taking out the iPhone headphone jack and rendering my home headphones redundant (and yes, I know there was an adapter in the box initially but I’ve no idea where any of mine are). 

So I say to Tim Cook: you may have taken our headphone jacks, Tim, but I beg you. Please don’t take our buttons. 

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series; her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, was shortlisted for the British Book Awards. When she’s not scribbling, Carrie is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind (unquietmindmusic).