I hate it clicking a link in one app on my iPhone opens a new app, and then getting back to the first app requires returning to the home screen and re-launching the first app.  OK, at some level this is a #firstworldproblems whine, but before I started using an Android device, I assumed this detail was a casualty of app-centered OS’s in general.

That was before I met Android’s system-wide Back button.

Android’s Back button (the left-pointing arrow on all screens, not any specific back button in a browser app), does one thing, but it does it in a way that helps the entire device feel more unified in a way iOS seems to completely misunderstand.

Take my earlier annoyance:  in Android, when you click on a link in one app that causes another app to open, you can use the Back button to simply go back to the previous app, as if they’re both, you know, part of the same operating system.

To me, this makes an Android device feel much more unified (even if this is more illusory than real).  Being able to move back through previous apps as you would through links in a browser adds a stronger sense of unity to user interface.

Now I know some android users don’t like the way this feature decides when to take you back to the previous app as opposed to taking you back to a previous moment within the current app.  And I would agree that this feature can be un-intuitive at times and as a consequence frustrating in a different way.

But I’m just pointing out here in a small way what folks like Lawrence Lessig and Ian Bogost have argued in much greater detail elsewhere, that choices you make in the coding of a system, tool, or device has rhetorical (and therefore cultural) significance to users that is non-trivial.  What you allow users to do, and how you allow them (or don’t) to do it, makes a big difference to how they understand what role the tool will play in their lives.  Apple usually does this incredibly well, but in the case of the illusion of unity throughout the OS, Android currently has them beat.

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