When Apple announced the Apple Watch Ultra, I was particularly interested in the introduction of an action button, additional hardware that can be set to trigger pretty much anything on watchOS. I started to wonder if future regular Apple Watches could get their own action buttons as well.
Now I’m starting to wonder if the action button could have been a sign of a big new Apple feature to come. What if the action button came to… the iPhone? It sounds crazy – but it could happen as early as this fall.
But first the Apple Watch
Before I get you excited about the iPhone possibilities here, I have to deliver the uncomfortable news about the action button on the Apple Watch Ultra: it’s not living up to its potential.
This is because the action button is not contextual. You can assign it to any number of different actions, but it behaves the same in all contexts. No matter what app or watch face you’re using, the action button only does one thing.
The action button on the Apple Watch Ultra is a bit of a one-trick pony.
One of my hopes for the next iteration of watchOS is that Apple will make the action button contextual. For example, you could program it to be a single function globally, or maybe different apps could use it in different ways – let the user decide. Support for double taps for different use cases would also be helpful.
Mediation between global and app-specific commands is difficult. Just think of the Mac, where assigning global hotkeys in the Settings app can affect keyboard shortcuts in individual apps – and vice versa. But it would be amazing to give Apple Watch apps direct access to a hardware button (I’m looking at you stopwatch).
About these iPhone buttons
Now we come to the iPhone. Apple, in its ongoing effort to remove moving parts from its products, is rumored to be replacing the volume buttons on the side of the iPhone with pressure-sensitive “buttons,” much like the home button did on the iPhone 7. They’d be on the buttons press, but they wouldn’t move – there would just be a Haptic Engine pulse indicating you pressed.
The venerable ringer/mute button that has been on every iPhone since the original model would also be replaced – with a button. I suppose it would work similar to the current switch which has a specific vibration when you put the phone in silent mode. Or maybe there would be two different haptic vibrations, one to enter sleep mode and one to exit.
What if that toggle found on every iPhone was replaced with an action button?
But how many people use this switch? I mostly leave my phone on silent. You can mute your phone from Control Center. What if I could… do something else with that button?
You see what I’m getting at with this.
My button, my actions
I’d like to thank Federico Viticci from MacStories for going over the new button configuration on the Connected Podcast. Once you consider Apple adding a button to the side of the iPhone, it’s hard not to be seduced by the idea that it should be reprogrammable. And wouldn’t that button be the equivalent of the Apple Watch’s action button?
Consider the possibilities. At the very least, Apple could treat that button like the Apple Watch Ultra treats its button: as a trigger for a single, global shortcut that runs no matter where you are in the iPhone interface. Imagine mapping it to the camera app or the flashlight function, for example.
It could be fun if apps had access to the button or if users could contextually control what it does. (I immediately started imagining that it would trigger a shortcut, which could then decide what to do based on my current focus state, the time of day, or some other variable.) But my best guess is that Apple will at least be conservative and let the new button mimic the Ring/Silent switch by default.
However, Apple has shown that it is happy to allow users to experiment with different ways of interacting with Apple’s hardware and software via settings in the Accessibility section of the Settings app. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple allowed users to remap this button to another function via an accessibility setting, with options like toggling the flashlight, entering a specific accessibility mode, launching an app, or running a shortcut. And if running a shortcut is an option, then the sky’s the limit.
In any case, I won’t miss the ring/silent toggle switch. And I’m happy that it could be replaced with a button that can actually be programmed to do something I want, rather than being dedicated to a function I never use.