Back in June, I took up the unpopular stance that Android’s navigation buttons are kind of useful. This was before Google introduced Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which, as rumored, allows smartphones to drop physical buttons in favor of software buttons.
But Ice Cream Sandwich doesn’t remove buttons altogether, it just moves them to a different place, leading Mobisle Apps Co-Founder Christoffer Du Rietz to conclude that Android is conceptually broken because it’s doomed to carry these buttons forever:
“The problem is, that Android hasn’t decided what that it wants the back button to do. Do you want it to take you back to the previous screen, wherever that was, or take you back one step inside the app? Right now it’s a convoluted combination of the two, and most of the time, which one will occur is a guess and can’t be known before pressing the button.”
I agree that the inconsistency of Android buttons is a problem, because you don’t always know what’s going to happen when you press “back,” “menu” or “search.” But I’m still happy to have these buttons, and the back button in particular, for one reason: “Back” is universal. It allows you to move not just within apps, but between them.
When I’m using an app such as Twitter, and an e-mail notification comes in, I can check the e-mail and then tap the back button twice to return to Twitter (once to return to the e-mail inbox, and again to go back to the last app.) Unlike with the iPhone, I don’t have to call up a multitasking menu or return to the home screen. I just tap the back button, often without even looking at the phone.
This method of multitasking–primary app into secondary app via notification, and then back into the primary app with the back button–is probably one of the most common ways that I navigate through my phone. I get a weird rush of satisfaction every time this exchange happens. It’s the feeling of technology working to my advantage.
Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber figures that eventually, Google could add a way for apps to abandon the back button if they don’t need it. I hope that never happens, because it would threaten the inter-app navigation that Android currently permits. Sure, Android is a conceptual mess, but in a way, it can also be a beautiful one.