These phones had gesture navigation before it was cool

5 min read

Gesture navigation is all the rage with smartphones nowadays. Apple’s iPhone X fully embraces it and Google is working on bringing gestures to Android P, but they’re far from the first to adopt it. Here are a few devices that adopted gesture navigation before everyone else decided it was a good idea.

Palm Pre with webOS

I had to start here. It’s unavoidable really. I’m still a fanboy at heart. The Palm Pre and webOS will always be my favorite mobile operating system. Most of that admiration is due to the fact that it was years ahead of its time. Many of its innovations are still being imitated in the newest version of iOS and Android.

The obvious of which was how it brought gestures to the home screen and made it a staple of the UX. This is similar to what Apple and Google have recently introduced, where OS multitasking revolved around a carousel of “cards” featuring your recently used apps for easy interaction. This was activated by an up-swipe from over the LED gesture light just under the screen. Up swipes brought you to card-view, while left sent you back a screen and right sent you forward.

Unfortunately, all the phones on this list didn’t make the cut and Palm’s demise might be the most dramatic of the group. Despite a lot of critical acclaims, the company struggled to gain the traction is needed to really fulfill the potential webOS brought to the market. In late 2010 the company was purchased by HP and seemed rejuvenated, but that was a false hope. By August 2011, the company decided to kill all webOS consumer products and crush the dreams of all their followers (I still won’t buy an HP product).

The software lives on in an opensource version called LuneOS, and the consumer developer tree is now found in LG smart TVs, but the days of smartphones running this great OS seem to be long gone (although I’ve pled for LG to surprise us numerous times). Palm’s lead UI designer, Matias Duarte, is also now the VP of Design at Google and is instrumental in many of the new UI changes found in Android.

BlackBerry Z10 with BB10

For most of the early 2000 boom of smartphones, BlackBerry was king. They dominated the market share with BlackBerry OS devices under the Research in Motion umbrella. But what they didn’t see coming, or react well to, was the emergence of full-touch devices like the iPhone, Palm Pre, and the Motorola Droid. After a few failed attempts with their existing systems, the company rebranded as BlackBerry and launched BlackBerry 10 OS.

BlackBerry 10 took some notes from webOS with a swipe to go home and “cards” overview, but did not allow for movement within screens of individual apps. Another unique option of BB10 was notifications. You navigated to your notifications with a swipe and drag to the right. This opened up BlackBerry Hub which is an aggregation of all app notifications. You can also simply half swipe up and hold to see how many notifications you have in many of your favorite apps.

BB10 is technically still around. The company still supports security updates of the OS but has moved onto Android for the most recent BlackBerry devices. BlackBerry 10 was the last ditch effort by BlackBerry to continue their rich history of complete internal control of both hardware and software on their smartphones. Many will disagree, but I really like BB10. The gestures were really well thought out once you got used to them and the entire OS embraced them as it was designed around it as the core of the operating system.

Nokia N9 with MeeGo

Finally, we have MeeGo. The Linux-based operating system that Nokia had planned to succeed their Symbian smartphone platform. It was an awesome mash-up of gestures to really make you feel futuristic while navigating the N9. You had numerous swipes depending on the desired result, but most were horizontal gestures, either left or right. This would take you back a screen while inside an app and to the home screen otherwise. You could also go straight home with a swipe up.

Unfortunately, like the rest of this list, Meego didn’t get a chance to shine on the Nokia N9. It actually didn’t even make it past its own launch. By the time the N9 was announced, Nokia had another huge revelation. The newly appointed CEO Stephen Elop made the decision to shun his in-house devs and sign a licensing deal with Microsoft to make Windows Phone 7 smartphones. They never made another Meego phone and 3 years into WP7 the entire mobile division of Nokia was purchased by Microsoft.

Nokia couldn’t make phones for 3 years after this merger, but now they are making a decent effort at a comeback with Android phones. Despite the resurgence, one has to wonder what they could have done with Elop going all in with Meego instead of WP7. The company still had a huge European mindshare of the market with former Symbian users that may have taken the bait of Meego. Regardless, the company was a husk of the promise it had behind the OS by 2014.

All three phone makers on this list had a pioneering heritage within the smartphone market. The title of a smartphone was once synonymous with BlackBerry, but all of these devices simply didn’t survive the attrition game that was the early 2010 smartphone industry. Could any of them have had a different outcome if they’d stayed their course? Maybe. Palm may have been in the best position to succeed behind HP’s payroll, but even their board didn’t think the years of losses in mobile to finally hit was worth it. The truth is we will never know what they could have done, but we see their imprint all over today’s mobile UI inside iOS and Android.