The new Apple iOS 17 beta was released to developers earlier in the week and in the code MacRumors noticed a reference to an "Action Button." It offered nine potential functions the user could choose: Accessibility, Shortcuts, Camera, Flashlight, Focus, Magnifier, Translate, Voice Memos, and – crucially – Silent Mode.
This sounds a lot like a contextual button, which chimes perfectly with the rumors swirling that such a user-definable button will replace the physical mute switch. Even the name from the leak, Action Button, is already known from the Apple Watch Ultra, so it's excruciatingly plausible.
iPhones have boasted a real mute switch since the very first iPhone generation which Steve Jobs revealed in 2007. It might just be a tiny switch but I love it. You can reach into your pocket and confidently set to 'silent' with no worries about checking the screen or trusting the OS. The phone vibrates its acknowledgment, or you can just look and see the physical truth.
I, for one, say "Don't you dare change this, Apple!" And I don't think I'll be alone. When I mentioned the rumor in the office, our Lab Manager (and iPhone deserter) said the physical switch was "The one thing he misses" about switching to Android phones.
I've upgraded my iPhone consistently every generation, selling the previous one to part-fund the next so I remain on what Apple see as the cutting edge. It already annoys me that the edge feels a bit blunter than it should, especially as I also see hopes of a new Sony image sensor seemingly drifting back to the iPhone 16.
The reason I say this is because it'd take a lot to stop me from upgrading, but the loss of this switch – more even than the lack of an exciting new camera – might be what makes the difference for me this time. It is such a marked and negative (for me, anyway) change in the phone's functionality
I accept that, in truth, the physical switch is probably just monitored by the OS and has no magical veto, but there is something so convincingly tactile which cannot be replicated by a button. Moreover, we all have experience of button presses being ignored by operating systems when they get busy. A switch remains in place, so will likely be checked again, but a button press? That can get unreliable if a device gets laggy.
Worse still, there is talk of a button that isn't a button, though perhaps not until the iPhone 16. Instead of real buttons, solid-state buttons that give only haptic feedback (vibration) via the Taptic Engine have been mooted. Rumors suggest only large-scale manufacturing issues have pushed these back from the iPhone 15. I say "Good." It was one thing for the iPhone's Touch ID on the front, but for buttons on the side? How will they cope with gloves?
None of this is to say I wouldn't want an Action Button too. I don't think, on the Max-sized iPhone an extra programmable button would be confusing if the very different sliding switch remained.
I'm not against an improvement, but this increasingly likely swap from switch to button seems only to hamper the user experience. Who gains? I suspect it makes making manufacturing easier & cheaper though I doubt that will be passed on. In the long run, it may pave the slow way for the removal of any potential points of water entry, but I'm not convinced a phone without a charging port will be a good thing either (a debate for another day!)
I'm sure Apple will tell us, that all potential customers would love to be able to toggle the torch or camera instead of mute but I, for one, think they're very wrong.
I really just want a phone that can be set to mute and has no danger of coming on in meetings or the cinema. But that's just me - and a million other users!