As buttons go, there are few as well-known as Staples’ “Easy Button” — a bright, Staples-red button that was featured in a series of ad campaigns beginning in 2005. The ads were so popular that Staples ended up actually selling real replica versions of the Easy Button shortly after they debuted — and it’s since sold millions of the desk toys.
The fictitious Easy Buttons featured in the commercials possess magical qualities that allow the user to sorcerously solve their (usually office supply-related) issues with the press of a button. The sad irony, of course, is that the real-life version of the product is significantly more disappointing. Pressing it doesn’t summon a rain of printer ink or raise the Great Wall to defend against an invading army. Instead, it just plays a recording of the company’s “That was easy” slogan when you press down the (satisfyingly clicky) button.
Outside of the metafictional context of Staples commercials, though, the idea of a magical big red button that you can press to solve a problem is one that resonates with the entire concept of hardware design. Sure, the real-world Easy Button is just a cute toy to leave on your desk or annoy your co-workers with. But nearly every hardware button that exists is born out of the same ethos as the more magical version from the commercial: it’s a physical object that’s designed for users to press, push, switch, or spin in order to solve a specific problem or accomplish a task.
The Easy Button just imagines a world in which our buttons have been elevated to an even higher plane. One where the things that buttons can do or the issues they can alleviate aren’t bounded by petty things like electricity, programming, or the laws of physics. One where no problem is too big or complicated that it can’t be solved with a single push of a button.
But the Easy Button’s journey from marketing gimmick to actual product doesn’t end with a wacky cubicle accessory — because the internet took the initial idea of the Easy Button and ran with it, with any number of tutorials available on how to hack the $9 toy. Most common hacks revolve around modding the hardware with a microphone to record your own catchphrases for the Easy Button’s tinny speaker to spout.
Other hacks go further, like installing an Arduino microcontroller that allows the once-useless button to be hooked up to a computer or custom hardware setup. And with that kind of hardware and some programming chops, the sky’s the limit for what you can have your Easy Button do, like boot up your computer, quit a Zoom call, or even order some more paper from Staples.
It’s still not quite the level of literal magic that Staples promises in its commercials, but after years, the converging forces of a marketing campaign turned into an office toy turned into a DIY tool have come full circle: an infinitely programmable button that can, in theory, do almost anything with just a push. And really, what else could you ask for from a button beyond that?