When you get a new Android smartphone, you may spend a lot of time thinking about the perfect way to organize your homescreen. You'll decide which apps make it to the main homepage, choose the right weather widget, and select the shortcuts that are necessary for daily use. Even your icon pack needs some consideration. What you probably don't consider, at least as often, is how you get to your homescreen. These days, many of us rely on gesture navigation, flicking our thumb up from the bottom of the screen to return to our personalized space.
Gesture navigation has a long history on Android, dating back to the days of Android 9 Pie. In the shadow of the iPhone X, the first Apple device to drop the once-iconic home button, Google immediately began working on a new navigation method that could replace the virtual button lineup that had become synonymous with Android. And while the company would eventually end up with a system that works for millions of users, it took years of trial and error to get there.
The death of the home button
By 2017, Google's eventual switch to a gesture-based navigation system on Android was all but destined. A month before the Pixel 2 arrived on store shelves, Apple debuted the iPhone X, the company's first — and, to date, only — complete reinvention of its flagship smartphone. The home button was replaced with a swipe-based gesture system for returning home and swapping between recently used apps.
The change seemed controversial at the time. While it was far from the first gesture-based system on phones (even some Android phones beat Apple to the punch), it was a massive change to how a once-simple mobile operating system worked. Would iOS users adapt to one of the biggest changes to hit the platform, or would millions be left struggling to use their new phones?
The iPhone X, in all its notched glory.
More than five years later, we know the answer. Only the third-gen iPhone SE and the entry-level iPad have retained their home buttons in Apple's current lineup.
Switching to a gesture-based navigation system has some apparent benefits, namely, screen real estate. While Android manufacturers had switched away from physical home buttons long before Apple, the line of virtual navigation buttons still consumed nearly a centimeter of the display. Apple's system, meanwhile, didn't just eliminate the bottom bezel from its phones. It allowed icons, web pages, and games to extend across the entire screen.
The iPhone X hit store shelves in November 2017, and while not every contemporary review was positive, most critics found the gestures adaptable over time. By April, just five months later, an early leak of Android 9 Pie showed off the gesture system Google had built to compete with Apple. It looked unfinished, removing the recent apps button entirely, replacing the home button with a pill-shaped oval, and leaving the back button untouched. Despite those rough first impressions, it was exactly what shipped in a final build later that year.
Apple might've made gestures mainstream, but it was far from 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. A single tap sends you home, a swipe to the left acts as the back button, and a swipe right opens the recent apps menu. It's not a one-to-one match with how we think of gesture controls today, but it was a cool idea. However, the death of bezels has all but killed front-facing fingerprint sensors — all those not under the display, at least — so it's an idea restricted to the history books.
The Moto G5S Plus replaced the navigation bar with the front fingerprint sensor.
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 (some earlier models received the feature through software updates), eliminating the navigation bar and allowing the UI to stretch the entire length of the display. In his review, AP's Ryan Whitwam described them as feeling unfinished, though he noted he "almost like[d] using them." It's all fairly standard these days: a swipe up sends you home, a swipe-and-pause opens the multitasking screen, and a swipe from the left or right bottom edges sends you back. Easy, right?
The OnePlus 6 series took gestures to the next level, completely hiding the navigation bar.
The OnePlus 6's version was pretty buggy. It didn't always pick up on a gesture, occasionally preventing the user from going home or making it difficult to close the keyboard without tapping something on the screen. The OnePlus 6T made some improvements in this area, including adding new animations. It's clear the company's gesture rendition was popular among fans. Former AP editor Ryne Hager seemed much more won over in his review of the 6T, even if some of the shortcuts remained awkward.
Still, for many, Google's version of Android is the "real" version of Android. It wouldn't take long for the company to try out a new way of navigating around the phone, but that's not to say it was entirely successful.
Google's first attempt
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. On the homescreen, this was the only icon you'd see, effectively cleaning up the bottom toolbar and consolidating three icons into one. With any application open, however, the back button would reappear on the panel's left side, leaving it unbalanced.
Google presenting its new gestures at I/O 2018.
Meanwhile, the pill pulled triple duty. Tap to go home, swipe up to reveal the multitasking menu (with a second swipe up opening the app drawer), or swipe right to switch back to your most recent app. In theory, this added a whole library of swipes and gestures to Android, making it faster to navigate between apps without relying on three ever-present buttons. In practical use, though, it didn't make much sense. Why was Google trying so hard to split the difference between buttons and swipes? How did this improve over the classic three-button layout most Android users felt comfortable using? Why keep the back button at all?
To no one's surprise, Google's new gestures received a polarizing response. Looking at a roundup of our favorite features at the time, AP alumna Rita El Khoury wrote that small improvements throughout the beta phase had made the experience much smoother. Meanwhile, David Ruddock wrote a scathing column panning Android's new gestures, describing it as "something out of a bad custom ROM — not a serious smartphone OS." No one was as harsh as Ars Techina's Ron Amadeo, who referred to Google's attempt as "ugly, lopsided, and pointless."
The now-infamous pill.
These gestures were optional for most Android 9 Pie users, including Pixel and Pixel 2 owners. You could pick between adopting Google's vision for the future of navigation or sticking with the tried-and-true triple-button layout. Pixel 3 owners weren't so lucky. When Google launched its 2018 flagship lineup in October, the company confirmed on Twitter that its new phones were locked into the pill. It wasn't until the third Android 10 beta in May 2019 that the classic three-button layout arrived on third-gen devices.
Google's insistence on its new gestures was an attempt to move Android in a new direction while avoiding a straight copy of Apple's iOS system. The iPhone XR brought swipe controls to more users than ever before. Samsung had introduced its take on gestures, avoiding Apple's take while translating Android's three-button design to something more understandable. Google was desperate not to get left behind, but it was clear that Android 9 Pie's implementation left much to be desired.
Back to the drawing board
Not everyone hated Google's pill-shaped gesture controls, but the implementation clearly needed work. Early in the Android Q rumor mill, word about the back button's imminent demise spread like wildfire. It made sense for Google to consider changing one of its main navigation control — as it stood on Android 9 Pie — because it was clunky, unintuitive, and ugly.
Before a public preview of Android Q dropped, a demonstration of a back button-powered pill showed up online, demonstrating how the device could start allowing users to swipe back rather than typing a button. Early betas for Android Q buried a work-in-progress version of this in its settings, but it wasn't until Google I/O that the vision for the future of smartphone navigation came to life.
Alongside the release of Android Q Beta 3, the company showed off a new bar replacing the pill-shaped icon at the bottom of the display. It solved many of the problems Android 9 Pie's implementation faced: it was shorter, less intrusive, and didn't rely on legacy buttons to move through apps. It also had some obvious inspiration from iOS, right down to the thin line running along the bottom of the device. Sure, some Android-exclusive controls remained — there's still nothing quite like the back gesture on the iPhone — but the rest of the experience was all too familiar.
It's hard to fault Google for throwing in the towel and moving to something similar to what Apple offered on its devices. By this time, the company was preparing to launch the iPhone 11 series, its third round of devices lacking a home button. The third-gen iPad Pro was just under a year old, also pairing Face ID with gesture controls. Even if reviewers and consumers, to a lesser extent, weren't sold on swipes and flicks in 2017, two years later, it's clear they'd caught on.
Because of how Google's beta program works, consumers spent months prior to a stable launch testing it out. And like the pill-shaped button before it, the gesture was controversial among beta testers. It was not only another change in how you navigate your phone — the second in as many years — but also a challenge for some people with disabilities who use Android, as they found triple-button navigation easier to use. It also didn't support third-party launchers, something Google admitted when Beta 5 finally landed in July.
Google backed up its argument, citing internal testing that proved its new gesture system was the fastest way to navigate around Android. Home and back swipes saw a huge increase in speed at the cost of a slight increase in opening the multitasking screen. Google defended this, citing stats that proved the app switcher was less essential to the average user than swiping home or back. And as for those concerns over third-party launchers, the company promised to fix that eventually.
And so, gestures launched in full force with Android Q — renamed Android 10 — in September 2019. Looking back, it was a fairly positive update for our readers. In a poll with nearly 10,000 respondents, more than half of voters who'd received the update felt positive about the changes. Still, digging into the comments section tells a different story. Some loved the changes, while others found them annoying. More than a handful of users stuck to the classic three-button navigation mode, especially if they relied on a custom launcher.
Looking back on Ron Amadeo's review of Android 10 at Ars Technica — a year after his scathing remarks about Android 9 Pie's attempts at redesigning navigation — he puts his thoughts about Android gestures upfront, listing them as the first section of his review, following a quick preamble about the naming scheme change. He makes it clear that although many of these new motions come straight from iOS, they're such a massive improvement compared to what Google tried before that it doesn't matter. One of the biggest critiques offered by Amadeo targets the visual look of Google's back gesture, something the company wouldn't target until Android 13, nearly three years later.
A few months after the Android 10 launch, Google was ready to put its pill-shaped gesture attempt behind it. Although the Pixel 4 included support for the legacy three-button layout, it dropped the Android 9 Pie gestures entirely. This move was far less controversial than when the Pixel 3 launched, partially because the older buttons still appeared and partially because these new gestures were much better.
Despite some bumps in the road, everything with navigation post-Android 10 eventually worked out. Third-party launchers work fine with more recent Android releases. You can switch between Android manufacturers and usually get the same gesture experience regardless of brand. It's rare to swipe and get an unexpected result these days. Something that could not be said for some earlier third-party attempts. As iOS-esque as the current design might feel, it's hard to argue with its success.
A predictive future for gestures
Between Android 10 and Android 13, not much has changed on the gestures front. Pick up a Pixel 7, and aside from some slight differences in the boldness of the gesture bar, you're unlikely to notice many differences between the current OS and what first shipped nearly four years ago.
With Android 14, however, Google is looking to introduce something revolutionary: predictive back gestures. First previewed in Android 13, this features promises to fix that ugly design flaw Amadeo wrote about with Android 10. Through some backend trickery, the OS will show the homescreen when you're about to head home, instead of to a previous page or menu. It's more complicated than it sounds, which is why it's taken nearly a year to end up in active use on some devices.
With Android 14 DP2, we've finally managed to check out how it works for ourselves. As AP's Manuel Vonau wrote in his hands-on, it's still rough around the edges, with the previous page not always displaying or, in some cases, complete system crashes. Still, it's early days for Android 14, so we expect many of these issues to be ironed out before a full release this fall.
The future is just a swipe away
It might've taken years of practice, failed attempts, and some inspiration from the competition, but gestures on Android are as good as they've ever been. Until technology like Project Soli evolves to the point where touching our phone's display is no longer required, ensuring that each swipe and tap is as efficient and user-friendly as possible is the only practical strategy. So far, Google's stayed on the right track with gestures. Let's hope they continue to get better and grow in functionality.