Why Android Ice Cream Sandwich's virtual buttons suck

Why Android Ice Cream Sandwich's virtual buttons suck

Summary: What idiot on Google's Android team put the home button directly underneath the spacebar?


I know that I can't be the only person with an Android 4.0 device that's extremely annoyed by this.

One of the key improvements that Google has claimed for devices designed for the Android 4.x Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) platform that was introduced in the previous version of the OS, Honeycomb 3.x (which was only used on tablet devices) is that the UI buttons are now all software-based.

This is in contrast to the previous-generation "Gingerbread" or "Froyo" 2.x devices which had physical buttons that performed the tasks of "Home", "Back", and "Option" as well as Apple's own iOS which has a singular physical main action button that complements the on-screen UI elements.

In theory, this virtualization of all the buttons allows Google as well as application developers to alter the functions and positions of commonly used UI elements depending on the type of app being used and also within the context of the UI function itself.

It also comes in handy when the orientation of the device is changed from portrait to landscape mode.

All of that is great in theory, except for one problem. As it stands today, very few Android developers are really taking advantage of it because there's not enough ICS devices in the wild yet to devote the effort towards optimizing smartphone apps for it.

So instead, what we're getting is a very generic default UI layout across all Android apps which use virtual keyboard and UI button input.

This includes the built-in Android 4.0 apps such as GMail, Messenger, Chat, Navigation, Google+ as well as many third-party applications which include popular social networking apps such as Twitter Clients, Facebook and Instagram.

As you can see from the screen shot, the problem is fairly obvious. The virtual keyboard is arranged in such a manner so that the "spacebar" is in very close proximity to the "home" virtual button.

What happens in these text-intensive apps is that when you are typing and enter a space, your finger tends to accidentally hit the home button instead, which exits the app and sends you back to the home screen.

To say this is awfully frustrating when you are typing in a status update or when a reply to an email is being composed is an understatement.

There are a couple of ways these issues can be resolved. First, Google could make a setting within Android to allow the virtual UI buttons for Back, Home and Recent to be re-arranged or aligned further from or closer to each other based on user preference.  There's certainly enough white space between these UI elements to permit this on smartphones as well as on tablets.

The other thing that Google might want to consider doing is offering several different types of keyboard layouts with different button sizes.

Yes, I'm aware any number of alternative keyboards and data entry methods exist which you can buy on the Google Play store. But the fact that the default text entry method is so broken on Ice Cream Sandwich is a complete failure on Google's part in my opinion.

And should you think I'm inclined to believe that Apple or Microsoft does things any better in this regard, I don't.

It doesn't really make sense in this day and age when we are using mobile devices that we should be using the exact same layout of a computer keyboard that was originally optimized for a desktop or a laptop device.

Why do we even need a "spacebar" in the same shape on a smartphone or does it need to even be in the same place? Doesn't it make sense to put the space button somewhere else in the keyboard layout, such as on the far left?

Given that touch-typing on a virtual screen is effectively impossible for many people, end-users need to be given a choice or the flexibility to modify the layout of the keyboard and the placement of the virtual buttons.

It's not like we have standardized sizes for these Android devices like we have for full-sized keyboards on laptops and desktops. And it's unlikely that any kind of form factor standardization for screen and device size is going to occur anytime soon, given the wide variety of products being released by the many Android vendors.

The width of the human fingertip also varies from person to person, depending on which finger is being used for data entry, as does the pressure being applied to the screen. Typing styles also vary, so to not have a customizable UI in my opinion is a detriment to any mobile platform, particularly for one as prolific as Android or even iOS or Windows Phone.

Do end-users of mobile devices need more flexibility in customizing the Android UI to suit their unique data-entry behavior and ergonomics? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Security, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • use a laptop instead

    I have tried several tablets, both Android and iPad, and they are all terrible for entering text. I have returned to my laptop and good riddance to those silly tablets.
    • I here you

      The larger tablets are not without their faults and I am thinking about just going with a smaller tablet for books and such (I prefer their screen and the choice of readers over just an ereader) and sticking with my MacBook air for my portable computing needs.
    • yet milions of people send milions apon millions of text via a smartphone

      tablets with a bigger real estate takes time to get used to. But with the ipad in land scape tilted in an angle, the software keyboard is better than some physical micro keyboards. though tablets are not ment for heavy typing any ways. Though if you had a full size blu-tooth keyboad, and outputing a ios device to a monitor. It more than posible.

      eventually people will use docking stations connected to HDTVs for their smartphone or tablet and bam a full desktop experience is enabled. Traditionsl PC has it's days numbered.
      • Screens are too small

        11" is good for a portable consumption device but I suspect most people aren't gonna trade in their big desktop flat-panels for them. To believe otherwise is pie-in-the-sky self-delusion.
    • Virtual keyboards are not terrible at entering text

      you are terrible at entering text with a virtual keyboard.
    • Not with Swype

      You can type almost as well on a smartphone with Swype as you can with a desktop keyboard. (Barring any severely esoteric conversations). Not quite as functional on a tablet though because of the distance of the keys on the keyboard.
  • Finally an article about this annoying issue!

    I thought I was the only one doing this!! As you mentioned in your article, my fix was an app called Thumb Keyboard, which lets me resize the spacebar (so it's somewhat a distance from the home button). I needed this badly. The fix for Google is quite easy, they just need to buy the company that produces Thumb Keyboard and package it in their next release.....
  • Wow, never done this

    I've had the Galaxy Nexus for four months and never once have I pressed "home" while attempting to press the space. I also own the Transformer Prime and have never done this.

    (For what it's worth, especially on my phone, I'm more likely to press the b or v.)
    • I've never done it either on my Galaxy Nexus

      I've never done it either on my Galaxy Nexus. I like using the Swype keyboard.
      • Same Thing ...

        Add me to the "no problem with the keyboard" on ICS.
    • me either cause the nexus is always searching for service

      When does Samsung plan to fix that? Unless I lock it in 3G, the phone is unusable. And its not a network issue as my other 4G devices work fine.
    • Honey Comb 3.2

      On that OS, I tend to press the N key when I want to press the Spacebar (not going down far enough). Typing on tablets is a bit frustrating when you know how to touch type and have to slow down. I am talking about on a 10.1" tablet also, not on something small.
  • Keyboard layout

    I guess the question is do you think the new layout in Windows 8 with a split keybaord will be better?
    I think it will help especially on a tablet form device.
  • The 2 Devices I Own

    On the two devices I own (Transformer Prime with ICS and an HP TouchPad with CM9) the three buttons show up on the left. If you hit any one of the virtual buttons instead of the space bar you're off by at least 6cm. On a phone? Well, I don't know about that, but you can probably configure your keyboard to sit on top of the row of virtual buttons. If not, I know there are apps for that.
    • I have a CM9 Touchpad

      Agreed. This is a non-problem for ICS tablets. In fact, I don't really believe ICS would be good on phones, or at least screens smaller than 4 inches.
      Fat Albert 1
  • Agreed

    I absolutely have to download a keyboard on each device I own. Great article. Too bad Google does not test their stuff like Apple does.
  • How about a more civil tongue?

    The next time your child comes home and says you're an idiot, don't take it too harshly.
  • Nope just you...

    I have learned to deal with this non-issue. Type in landscape, use swipe, or learn how far down the space bar is. In the words of the "Great" Steve Jobs, "No your just holding the phone wrong," or quoting Steve Jobs and Mashable he has gone on record to say, "Steve Jobs himself responded similarly in one of his increasingly spontaneous e-mail answers: ???Just avoid holding it in that way.???" Yup that summarizes my response...
  • Maybe you should try another keyboard

    I've had the galaxy nexus since December and I've never hit the home button when trying to hit the space bar. Not once. I think you're blowing this way out of proportion.
  • You are...

    You are typing/touching it wrong.