Gesture navigation is lame

Sun 26 May 2024 by R.L. Dane

In late 2017, Apple introduced what was to be a very revolutionary iPhone (by iPhone standards, heh): The iPhone X.
Gone were the archaic huge forehead (how much room do you really need for a speaker, camera, and proximity sensor?) and chin (with physical home button*). In its place was a gargantuan notch that I will never stop making fun of, and a gesture navigation system that would've made Steve Jobs fire the entire design team.

* Yes, I know the home button hadn't been an actual button since the iPhone 7, but rather a capacitive sensor.

Now some will say that there are aspects of gesture navigation that are fairly intuitive, and I will agree with some of those points. But my #1 criticism is that on such a huge display, having to reach down to the very bottom of the screen to swipe up is far too difficult a task (when weighed both against the difficulty that some users, such as those with arthritis will have in performing it, and also against how many times per day the average person will have to perform such a fairly precise maneuver.)

But more importantly, we must ask, was this the only option? Does removing a physical home button mean that the only option is to use a swiping gesture? Of course not. Android phones (always in search of the most screen real estate possible) ditched physical home buttons years before the iPhone. The physical buttons were soon replaced by off-screen capacitive areas, and soon after that, on-screen buttons (which contrary to your initial assumptions, were always pretty easy to hit, being very nicely spaced out.
They look something like this:

      ◀       ●       ■      

You get a dedicated back button near the bottom-left corner of the screen, a home button on the bottom-middle, and an app switcher icon near the bottom-right.

The standard Android screen buttons are still present (as an option) today. But in late 2018 with the introduction of "Android 9.0/Pie" (nearly a full year after the iPhone X), Google introduced its copycat gesture navigation system, called simply "Gesture Navigation," or "Two-Button Navigation."

This was my favorite navigation system on a mobile OS. It kept the dedicated home button (now elongated) and back button (along with other context-sensitive buttons that would appear, like manual screen rotation override and the accessibility button for features like screen zoom), but it replaced the app switcher button with a gesture: swiping up from the home button. The thing was, this was actually easier to do than the iPhone's version, because you were swiping up from an easily-accessible button on the bottom of the screen, rather than swiping up from the actual extreme bottom of the screen. In addition to this, it had a powerful app switcher gesture: just swiping the home button to the left or right switched apps, and holding it down would switch through all of the apps one-by-one, stopping when you lifted up your finger. It was incredibly intuitive and easy to use.

The G.O.A.T. switcher looked a little something like this:

      ◀        ◖■◗      

(Please forgive my ham-fisted attempts at Unicode art. I couldn't find a horizontal "lozenge" shape anywhere in Unicode, and had to settle for two semi-circles and a box)

All Good Things...

Sadly, one year later in September 2019, Android 10 was released (yeah, no fun dessert name, either!), which deprecated the GOAT switcher (my name for it, obviously), and replaced it with a rather poor knock-off of the iPhone's dreary gesture switcher. Like the iPhone, it consisted of a thin bar at the extreme bottom of the screen:


While the previous Gesture Navigation system (the G.O.A.T) was still available on older phones, they stopped supporting it on new phones, and 2-3 years later, the FOSS Android build I use, CalyxOS dropped the GOAT navigation system as well. They had been shoehorning it into more recent Android builds long after Google completely removed it from Android, but it was becoming unstable with newer Android versions and just couldn't be kept in without serious retooling.

And thus ended a Very Good Thing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go mutter imprecations at my phone. (And yes, I've tried to go back to the three-button mode, but it's just too clunky. I miss being able to quickly flip between apps).