Paranoid Android’s Halo, Apple’s Assistive Touch, and the future of smartphone UI

When Google showed off Android 3.0 Honeycomb in February 2011, to me it signaled the beginning of the end for hardware buttons. Practically every mobile device that’s been sold before that demo has included at least one button on the face of the device. Apple has the iconic home key, most Android phones used to have four dedicated capacitive keys, and if you look back far enough, you could see Palm OS and Windows Mobile both had similar controls.

Earlier this year I escaped Finland’s brutal winter and spent 2.5 months exploring South East Asia. Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, my passport now has two full pages of stamps. During my travels I paid close attention to the devices people were using and how they were using them. Regardless of the city I was in, it felt like half the people living there used iPhones.

That didn’t shock me.

What shocked me was seeing how people used their iPhones on the subway, on the bus, on the train, what have you. They never pressed their home keys, not once. Instead they pressed an on screen circle that was always hovering over whatever app they happened to be in. Later I’d learn that this feature is called “Assistive Touch”.

When Facebook unveiled Chat Heads to the world last month, to me it seemed like Apple’s Assistive Touch, except with the ability to pull up a chat window. And this morning I saw a four minute video on The Verge demoing “Halo”, which is basically a clone of Chat Heads for Android, except that it notifies you of everything, not just new Facebook messages.

Now let’s talk about the future. Stock Android, pretty as you might think it is, has a tragic flaw. The bottom of your screen is “wasted” showing buttons for back, home, and multitasking. I wouldn’t be surprised if a newer version of Android did away with those buttons and moved to an Apple “Assistive Touch” style UI.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the entire mobile industry move towards this UI model as well.

Think about it. Pulling down a notification shade was terrible easy back in 2010 when the 3.7 inch Nexus One was around. But in 2013, with the 5 inch Samsung Galaxy S4 and the 5.5 inch LG Optimus Pro, hitting the top of the screen is a gesture that requires far too much effort.

It probably isn’t going to happen this year, but I have a strong feeling that in 2014 we’ll see Apple ditch the home button and Google introduce a new Android interaction model, both of which are focused around a floating orb that once pressed allows you to interact with everything on your device.

I’m excited, because I love large screens, but at the same time I hate the inefficient use of screen real estate. If we can move those UI controls to a little ball that can be placed wherever an individual prefers them to be, then we’ll move smartphone UI that much more forward.