When you purchase a new Android phone, you might spend a lot of time organizing your homescreen, selecting which apps will be on the main homepage, choosing the right weather widget, and picking the necessary shortcuts. However, what you might not consider is how you get to your homescreen. These days, many of us rely on gesture navigation by flicking our thumb up from the bottom of the screen to return to our personalized space.
Gesture navigation on Android has a long history dating back to Android 9 Pie. Google began working on a new navigation method that could replace the virtual button lineup that had become synonymous with Android after the iPhone X, which dropped the once-iconic home button, was released. Although Google eventually ended up with a system that works for millions of users, it took years of trials and errors to get there.
By 2017, Google’s switch to a gesture-based navigation system on Android was inevitable. Apple debuted the iPhone X, the company’s first — and, to date, only — complete reinvention of its flagship smartphone, which replaced the home button with a swipe-based gesture system for returning home and swapping between recently used apps. While it was far from the first gesture-based system on phones, it was a massive change to how a once-simple mobile operating system worked.
The iPhone X’s gesture-based navigation system allowed icons, web pages, and games to extend across the entire screen, eliminating the bottom bezel from its phones. Apple’s implementation also made room for virtual home buttons on the latest iPhone and iPad models, but those buttons have been eliminated from most devices.
While Apple made gestures mainstream, it wasn’t the first company to adopt them. Phones like the Moto G5S Plus utilized front-facing fingerprint sensors to double as a one-button navigation system. OnePlus made some impressive steps in this field in 2018, likely spurred by the success of the iPhone X. The OnePlus 6 was the company’s first device to launch with gestures, eliminating the navigation bar and allowing the UI to stretch the entire length of the display.
When Android 9 Pie launched in August 2018, it included the same gesture system that leaked months earlier, with only a few small changes to the overall look. This navigation method still took up a similar amount of space along the bottom of the screen, only removing one button entirely. In the middle of the bar was a new pill-shaped home button that functioned as a triple-duty feature.
Google’s new gestures received a polarizing response, with some finding it useful, and others criticizing it as something out of a bad custom ROM. These gestures were optional for most Android 9 Pie users, including Pixel and Pixel 2 owners. However, Pixel 3 owners were locked into the pill. Google’s insistence on the new gestures was an attempt to move Android in a new direction while avoiding a straight copy of Apple’s iOS system.
Early in the Android Q rumor mill, word about the back button’s imminent demise. Not everyone hated Google’s pill-shaped gesture controls, but the implementation clearly needed work. It wasn’t until Android 10 that Google rolled out the new gesture navigation that users have today, which is more intuitive and customizable to individual preferences.