With Android Pie's new gestures, how long until the back button is a thing of the past?

A lot of the announcements from this year's Google I/O were surprises, but we all knew we'd be seeing new developments in Android Pie. Google released a public beta after its presentation, available through an OTA update (previously there was only an early developer preview), and while there quite a few new features, the one that stood out the most — at least, for me —was Android's new gesture-based navigation controls.

That's right, if you've ever been jealous of your iPhone X-touting friends, or the long-discontinued webOS interface Apple took inspiration from, you won't have to be for much longer. Phones running Android Pie (which, as it turns out, includes more than just the Pixels this time around) can already be operated using gestures rather than the traditional three-button layout, and I can't wait to try it for myself.

I've been using the iPhone X for a few months now, and while not perfect, I've come to love the gesture-based navigation scheme. Swipe up from the bottom to go home, swipe left or right to jump between apps, and swipe up and over to access your full recent app list. Android Pie isn't dissimilar; there's only one button visible from the home screen, and tapping it will still take you home, but now you can slide the button to the right to flip through recent apps, taking the place of the dedicated multitasking button. You can also swipe up to view all of your recent apps, or swipe even further up to access your app drawer.

Jump into another screen, though, and you'll see a familiar face resurface — the back button is still alive and well in Android 9 Pie, though its absence in the home screen makes it clear that Google is trying to phase it out soon. But when exactly will that be?

This wouldn't be the first time Google got rid of an important navigation button. Remember how essential the Menu button used to feel as part of the core Android experience? These days, a phone with a Menu button feels like an ancient relic, and I wouldn't be surprised if, in a few years, the back button felt the same way. iOS has gotten along fine for a decade now without a back button, so why can't Android?

Phasing out such a key part of Android's user interface takes time; even after the Menu button was killed off in stock Android, it stayed on as a legacy button for years while Google waited on developers to catch up. While this phase-out will likely take just as long, if not longer, it won't even start until Google officially kills it off. We need to see an alternative method of going back within apps and menus; iOS allows you to go back by swiping over from the leftmost end of the screen, but frustratingly, that only works some of the time, so I'd like to see something a bit more consistent.

Why not replace the back button with a swipe to the left from the new middle button? Or a different action, like a double tap on the button? Whatever the case, as difficult as it would be at first, I'd love to see Google completely eliminate the back button and reduce navigation to a single point for gestures at the bottom of the screen. Unless Google makes some last-minute changes to Android Pie before the final build, I'm not expecting that to happen this year, but I've been wrong plenty of times before. This would be a nice surprise.

Would you be on board with a fully gesture-based navigation scheme on Android, like iOS on the iPhone X? And would you be okay with the death of the back button, or will Google have to one day drag you away from it, kicking and screaming? Let us know in the comments below!

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

74 Comments
  • Another form over function decision. In no way to I want them to remove the Back button. It's funny how sometimes any change at all is construed as "moving forward" or evolving. Even those changes that take us backwards or - at best - offer no improvement, but are just different. This wouldn't be the worst thing, but it certainly isn't going to be some revolution of design or any kind of great help to users IMO.
  • You sound like an old bitter man
  • I agree completely with the OP and I'm not a bitter old man ☺️. I love change, as long as it's an improvement. However, nowadays, software is changing just for the sake of change and very few improvements. This philosophy definitely provides job security for programmers.
  • I agree the 3 icon system isbmuch more convenient.
    The 3 icons can be hidden when you like.
    They can do three function each. Press, long press and double tap.
    A big move backwards IMO.
  • You can still use the 3 icon system. You have to turn gestures on in the settings to get the swipe functions.
  • No doubt and even if Android stopped giving the option other launchers are available.
    Gestures have been about for a long time and have also been ignored by most. For good reason.
  • When that happens, Android becomes as sh*tty as iOS.
    At that point, Google achieved its objective and at that point, we will be better off just buying iPhones anyway. Fortunately Samsung and others will tell Google to shove their ideas in the place where the sun doesn't shine and will completely change that.
    If Google tries to force it... Well, there's always Tizen, SailfishOS and, ultimately, iOS. All better options than Google's version of what will then be no more than iDroid.
  • This I don't think is an iOS thing, but it's going to be called that forever. However, check out Meego(Nokia n9). This worked beautifully back then, I can only imagine how much better that can get with all these apps available for the android platform.
  • Yeah...precisely because I remember how atrocious navigation with gestures was on the N9 and because I know how horrible it is to not have a back button on iOS, I hate the idea of removing Android's back button. Besides, it makes absolutely no sense. It makes navigation harder and less intuitive and it serves absolutely no purpose other than to copy iOS.
    And this is EXACTLY what Google is doing. Don't fool yourself. If the iPixels weren't enough of a hint for you, it's impossible to look at their idiotic decisions software-wise and not realise that Google is literally trying to copy iOS and slap their App store and bloatware in it.
    They want the walled gardens of iOS but with their services instead. That's their aim.
    And when they talk about "Android open"...yeah...they're just being what they've always been: hypocrites.
  • Grow up
  • Such an ignorant luddite.
  • Amazing. You managed to articulate 4 words. All of them pointless.
  • Your comment of Google coping Apple /iOS is dead on. Original Pixel was a clone of the iPhone 6 /7 look. There was no need for them to have such big bezels as they had no home button like the iPhone. Android P was redesigned to resemble the look and feel of iOS in the hopes it would attract iOS users to Android. Numerous sites mentioned this months ago.
  • Anyone who used the palm pre will tell you gestures are great! However, Google's implementation isn't there yet. How about keeping the buttons as an option? Would you still complain? (Probably!) I am glaf they are moving in this direction as it potentially gives us more screen real estate and could make navigating the interface more fun and intuitive. I sometimes feel like the people here aren't really tech nerds but just whiny "my-way-or-the-highway!" curmudgeons.
  • You will always be able to add your own launcher with Android.
    But sounds like you've made your mind up already.
  • That may go away as well.
  • This is non sense. The main excuse here is "for easier time when iPhone users switch..."
    It's not intuitive and definitely not efficient way to navigate. It's way faster to tap on what you need than to press - hold - swype away. They added 3 steps when only one needed. Genius !
    If this Librem 5 shows some stability and decent battery life I'm done with Android altogether.
    If not, I guess I'll have to get used to it. Even with this navigation failure , Android is still more user friendly than iOS.
  • Wow you are dumb
  • Someones opinion does not make them dumb, however, your comments reflect poorly toward your own intellect...
  • Tizen and SailfishOS? Are you kidding? Those OS's are all but non-existent and never took off, nor will they ever take off. You're opinion, while nicely noted, is but as usual, a very downer one. It's suprisingly you included iOS, last time I checked, you called iOS's navigation cumbersome and difficult.
  • Motorola one button navigation eliminates all the buttons and replaces them by swipes on the fingerprint sensor. Maybe not as nice as screen gestures but I love how it works.
  • Yeah, I love how Moto does it. But if Google would just make a left-swipe in place of the back button, it would replicate that on-screen....that'd be much better than the disappearing back button.
  • Why not swipe up for app drawer. Swipe up and to the right for recent apps. Swipe up and to the left for back. Tap for home. 🤔
  • Why not just buy an iPhone for that?
  • It would solve the need for a back button. FYI in case you're wondering why i like gestures i used to have BB10 phone.
  • Or download a launcher. It's cheaper.
  • This sounds like non-news. You don't need the back button on the home screen because there is nowhere to go back to. Then you say the back button reappears when you go to another screen. Of course it does, because now you have the ability to go 'back' to the home screen. Sounds like they just reduced the clutter on the home screen. I don't see them ever phasing out the back button, since it's one thing major that makes Android better than iOS. If they did get rid of the back button, I'd find a launcher or phone that has it.
  • My sentiments exactly. There are a lot of launchers that are much better than the one that comes on phone initially.
  • All I can say is after signing up for the P Beta that the gestures update is in it's infancy and so far I'm not a fan. Have the time when swiping them away they freeze and the only way to get them to go is to either open them again or open a second app then swipe them both away. I know, it's Beta so there are going to be bugs but just from the first look at an OS without a home button has been less than overwhelming.
  • "Android" still supports trackballs, physical buttons to dial and hang up the phone, joysticks and mice, pupil tracking, gyroscopic input, and any other way a developer can think of to work within the bounds of the user i/o libraries in the SDK. The back button will never go away. The launcher on the Pixel doesn't use a back button if you decided to remove it and use a gesture instead.
  • If they get rid of it inside of apps that will be extremely frustrating, iOS's use of a little back arrow at the top of the screen is not intuitive or physically comfortable. If I lose a back button inside of things like Chrome or games/apps where I like to be able to back out to a menu screen and then see that I'm closing the app, I'll be sad.
  • Android are usually the innovators but that would be BS I'll get a Galaxy instead of Pixel phones and if every Android phone does it I'll get a iPhone
  • So many drama queens around here. My God
  • Why not both? Would it be horrible if the swipe left acted as a back button, but the back button is there for those who prefer it? One thing I always appreciate is multiple way to perform the same action. you might like to do it one way, but I like to do it a different way. Everybody is happy.
  • Totally agree here
  • You can have your back button when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands!
    Keep your hands off my back button.. it's the single most functional reason Android destroys iOS in usability.
  • I wouldn't say the single most functional. However, it's definitely one of them. It's better at multitasking, and better supports background apps.
  • I was skeptical about having gestures replace the navigation buttons that we've used for long. But after using Android P D2 for a few days, I can whole heartedly say that I am on board with the new gestures. After becoming comfortable with swiping right for multitasking, I was wondering mysellf why I couldn't just swipe left to go back. I would very much support adopting this gesture. There's no reason that classic navigation buttons couldn't remain as a user selectable option for those that prefer it. Come on Android, "Be together - Not the Same!"
  • Sorry,
    But this old dinosaur is still a big fan of the physical Home button. No Back button? "Get off my lawn."
  • Buy the rights to BB10 and implement some of their features!
  • YES, kill the back button for a swipe left.
  • Maybe instead of celebrating the return of a navigation system that has almost exclusively existed on failed OS', we should be examining why those interface models failed in the first place.
  • They didn't; BB10 and webOS failed for commercial reasons unrelated to their design, specifically, lack of app support.
  • Gestures have been about for many years on many different devices.
    Most ignore them as they prefer the current icon system.
    Google is obviously looking to entice iPhone users as going after Samsung users is attacking their biggest software user.
    Gestures will always be an option for those that like them, as will the icons.
  • Why swipe when you can just tap...no back button for me will just shove me over to iPhone.
  • Whatever the reasoning, I'm sure any desire to be rid of the navigation buttons would be–at least to some extent–because they aren't particularly attractive. But I agree with the many here who feel that the back button (amongst several other things) makes Android superior to iOS. To my mind, the design of an OS and apps should always strive to maintain one-handed usage and navigation in the fewest possible taps (or gestures). And as screens have gotten bigger (and bigger...) over the years, I think these elements have been harder to achieve–whenever they've been attempted. So with the aforementioned giant screens being what they are, the bottom–and top, to a lesser extent–of the screens have always been problems for me, and I've found 3rd party gesture apps to be helpful in keeping navigation a bit more comfortable. But a single gesture point at the bottom of the screen wouldn't be the way that I'd want to go. And the fact that many apps make use of a right-swipe from the left edge for menus means even further complication in design. As is usually the case, developers need look no further than what the root community is doing for inspiration. I'm currently using an app (root-only) that allows many gestures, but have found swipe up/down on the left/right edges to be the most reliable. I use these for back, recents, screen off, and to launch a quick brightness slider. Along with that, I use a super old app launcher alternative that I've been running since my original Droid. With the way that I've set my phone up, I actually don't need the nav buttons at all–and rarely use them, but I do keep them there as my third party apps obviously don't fire up right away after a reboot. I've also eliminated any use of the home screen, which keeps things speedier. So yes, Android without navigation buttons can be done, but considerations for intuitive function being what they are, I'm doubtful that any implementation by google will be something I'll be excited about. Google Pixel running 7.1.2 (by choice)
  • With how much Google copies Apple I am sure it will be soon and it will be less functional than with the back button. Not having a back buttons is one of the things i hear iOS users actually complain about. They wish there was a universal way to go back instead of relying on developers which will never, ever do it universally the same. Each iteration of Android there seems to be one less reason to stick with Android. iOS is clearly the superior OS. Google copies so much of it and it runs better and directly with the hardware. Removing the small things that make Android unique is a super good way to get users to switch. The ONLY reason I haven't is because I can block ads on Android really easily. Once that is gone I will switch immediately to iOS and never look back.
  • Yea, but no.
    Android is customiseable.
    Android should be basic and consumers can build their own skin that suits their specific needs.
    Or get Samsung to do it if you can't.
  • You can customize Samsung as well. Actually Samsung does more so there's more opportunity to customize than most Android phones
  • Google's UX excellence (UNDISPUTED LEADERSHIP) at work yet again.
  • Absolutely nothing to this day beats the feel of the BB10 up-and-right gesture to view the Hub. Beautiful OS that wasn't appreciated. And now all we have is Android and iOS which are becoming so similar and the best they can do with their gestures are crappy versions of what BB10 could do.
  • The dedicated back button makes android.. android
  • I strongly prefer the current buttons, and I even miss the menu button (now we have to hunt within each different app). Why complicate something that already works perfectly? Add gestures for those who want them, but make it an option. Anyone who's gotten tendonitis from phone swiping all day appreciates that it's not always the easiest movement to make.
  • On Reddit, a better navigation system for Android is trending. https://www.icoulddobetterthanthat.com/2018/05/android-p-navigation-i-co... Much better than the current gestures in my opinion.
  • There are at least 2 feature request for modification of the gestures that have been assigned to the Android team. So there is that. Also the All about Android team interviewed 2 senior members of the Android team who said things are likely to change as they are protyping different designs.
  • I like the function of the back button. I think it is still useful. I don't see any improvement gained by removing the back button. I've used iOS and prefer the current method of navigation on Android.
  • Did you try BB10? To go back, you often just swiped right. Awesome.
  • Here's the thing about the back button: I've recently switched from W10M (Lumia 950xl) over to Android (LG V20), so for me the back button is already almost useless. On Windows, pressing the back button twice in an app would exit the app and then switch to the most recent app, holding it down would go to task view/open apps, and pressing it in web browser would automatically close the tab you were in. The Android back button does none of those things, so for me, it might as well go away. It literally only does one thing, which is duplicated by the back button most apps have on the title bar.
  • Android's back button will only be a thing of the past A) Until Google see's the errors of their way and puts it back, even as an option. When Google moved from (I don't know) Lollipop to Marshmallow they dumped the app drawer, all apps would be displayed on the various pages just like IPhone... Stupid decision then, and sure enough after feedback they corrected and it became an option that you could select upon startup and signing into your device during setup. Some manufacturers immediately offered it on their then new phones. B) Launchers and third party apps will take care of it. You can already with a good launcher mimic another OS or even another device. With third party apps you can create your own gestures, add yourself the app drawer if your device doesn't have one and it's not an option and do things with the button row at the bottom - add a button, swap what side they're on, add a color or an effect... So once again we're left with it not necessarily being a big deal. Because being Android you have options if you so choose to exercise them to do something about it, but we are left asking the question "why?" I mean have Android users been crying out for this? Why is Google spending their time on something so small and inconsequential? I'd personally would've rather seen the return of lock screen widgets, like say a calendar you can access with a swipe of the lock screen... But then again, there are third party lock screens, some of which allow for widgets.
  • Keep the back button. I wouldn't mind having it happen through a swipe from the home button, as is suggested in the article, but the function needs to remain and needs to be easy to access. There is a value in it, especially in it being accessible from a central bottom position. It makes at least stock Android more intuitive than iOS
  • Swipe gestures have been in Nova launcher for a long time, and customizable.
  • I'll be honest: I dislike change when the ONLY reason is to perform the same thing differently. What is the end result? You go back. What is the end result if you make it more complex? You go back.
    Some people would be intrigued by replacing the brake pedal in the car with a touch screen command, but that does not make it better.
  • Surely removing the back button from the home screen is just because it has no function there. The back button originated as a physical button, but as hardly anybody has them any more it makes sense to have it be context sensitive. It says nothing about whether it will be removed elsewhere.
  • I've always thought the back button was one of Android's best features. It always seems missing on IOS and it causes developers to have to tack on back buttons on their own instead. That causes lost space that could have been used for something else.
  • Sounds like blackberry 10 OS. Funny thing about this is besides the notification light, having a back button and well buttons on general is why I have an android phone. I get furious when I try to use an iPhone
  • The back button (or a similar gesture that does the same) is one of the best and distinguishing factors that made me love Android over any other mobile OS. I hope the back function remains.
  • They better not get rid of it... iPhone is crippled because it doesn't have one. Companies should stop "copying" Apple crap. Not everything they do is gold. Far from it. Stop copying and do your own thing.
  • If I wanted gesture control I'd buy an iPhone. I hate gesture control. Especially while trying to scroll in apps. It's such a pain when you scroll to the end of comments in Facebook, and you end up getting kicked back to the previous screen. I was just trying to scroll! Or when you accidentally scroll a little left and right while scrolling down in Chrome. Thumbs travel in an arc, that doesn't mean I want to go back a page! Stop it!
  • Heck, I may break out my old L640 if they stop offering phones with back buttons... Maybe a flip phone?
  • Arrgh this is the windows 8 moment for Android. Gestures are the new kool and all but normal users will find it hard to adjust. Why break something that works completely fine? iPhone X screwed Android world in three ways. 1) Freaking notch, 2) unnecessary moving towards gestures and 3) moving away from perfectly functional and convenient fingerprint censors towards super annoying and user hostile (at times) Face unlocking.
  • Couldn't agree more.
    Form over function and change for change sake.
    Android has matured so much Google has reached the bottom of the barrel and are finding it difficult to update every year.
    Fortunately launchers are two a penny.
  • 1. The notch makes room for bigger usable screen real estate, it’s an interactive bezel
    2. Gestures are really intuitive and can be faster at times. Try it
    3. Face unlock is not more user hostile than having a censor on the back of the phone
  • « or the long-discontinued webOS interface Apple took inspiration from » Always diminishing Apple merit when u can :)
    All industries get inspiration from one another. Android would not even exist as it is without ios in the first place
  • « that only works some of the time, so I'd like to see something a bit more consistent True but it’s also the developers job