The iPad does need it, and Apple won’t replace it.
First, I’ll answer the question, “What else is it for?”
- Go home. This is the most important feature. No matter where you are, you can get back to home with a tap. Watch a user new to the iPad. If he gets frustrated or lost, it’s comforting to know that a single tap of the Home button is the way out. He can start over.
- Take screenshots. Yes, it does this and it’s quite useful.
- Open the Multi-Task Bar. A double-tap reveals the Multi-Task Bar, which is extremely useful. Fast app switching, media control playback, AirPlay control, even the popular force-quit are all available in the Multi-Task Bar.
Sleep. A quick tap puts your iPad’s display to sleep, saving power.1
- Wake. Tap the Home button to wake your iPad’s display.
- Reset. Force a misbehaving iPad to shut down by pressing the Home button and power button simultaneously.
- Music controls. Double-tap the Home button while music plays as the display is asleep to produce audio controls.
- Accessibility functions: The Home button can perform one of five accessibility functions: toggle VoiceOver, switch the display to white-on-black, toggle zoom, toggle AssistiveTouch and ask which function should be performed.
- Exit “Jiggle Mode.” After re-arraning app icons or filling folders, tap the Home button to exit Jiggle Mode.
- Initiate a Spotlight search. While on the home screen, tap the Home button once to produce the search field.
- DFU Mode. For reverting to factory firmware.
There you have ten functions the iPad Home button performs. As far as replacing it with a touch-sensitive area on the bezel, that’s just impractical. The main problem is orientation. Where is it? Since there’s no “wrong” way to hold an iPad, the Home button could be at the top, bottom, left or right at any time. I often find it by feel, a tactic that a touch area would eliminate.
Accidental pressing is also a concern. You can brush over the current button without pressing it. I can only assume a touch area would be more sensitive.
Update: My TUAW colleague Richard Gaywood chimes in:
Another interesting thought from Bill Williams. What if the entire bezel were touch-sensitie, and the accelerometer kept the bottom-most one active?
“This could be partly mitigated by making the entire bezel touch-sensitive, and then only detecting touches on whichever edge happens to be the virtual ‘bottom’ based on the screen’s orientation.”