You may recall that, a couple of months ago, we published an article on claims that Microsoft is apparently planning to allow its Windows Phone partners to do away with the trio of hardware buttons - Back, Start and Search - that adorn the front of each device. The report stated that the move was part of a plan to help reduce production costs for OEMs, and would also pave the way for the possibility of dual-boot devices running both Windows Phone and Android.
Today, those claims appeared to be substantiated thanks to a leak from the ever-reliable @evleaks, who - in a tweet that's as brilliantly tantalising as it is frustratingly succinct - revealed what he referred to as a "partial Windows Phone "Blue" screenshot" that shows nothing more than the three familiar Back, Start and Search buttons.
Now, if this had come from any other source, we'd assume we were just being trolled, hard, by someone wanting to wind up the Windows Phone community. But as you'll likely be aware already, @evleaks has an exceptional track-record when it comes to spilling the beans on devices and information ahead of their official reveals, so we have no reason to doubt that this is anything but the real deal.
The fact that he refers to these three buttons as being part of a "screenshot" suggests that the earlier reports were indeed correct. What is not yet clear is whether on-screen buttons - in a similar style to Android's display-based navigation inputs at the base of the display - will be a universal feature across all Windows Phone 8.1 devices, or if this will just be an optional feature that manufacturers can choose to implement.
A mock-up showing how the on-screen buttons could look in action
Recent reports have suggested that Microsoft is going out of its way to offer various concessions and assurances to its hardware partners, in an effort to ensure that they continue to produce Windows Phone handsets in the future. Nokia has come to dominate Windows Phone, with its Lumia handsets capturing around 90% of sales at last count, and with Microsoft acquiring Nokia's devices business, the company is reportedly bending over backwards to make sure that other OEMs do not turn their backs on the platform.
Reassured by unspecified commitments from Microsoft executives, ZTE has already committed to launching new Windows Phones next year, while one unverified report claims that Microsoft has offered Samsung around $1bn in "support" to secure the development and release of new WP handsets from the Korean hardware giant.
Source and upper image: @evleaks