iPhone wish list: Universal Back Button

HTC Droid Eris -- note back button second from the rightYesterday I bought a new phone: an HTC Droid Eris, based on Google's Android operating system.  Why not an iPhone?  Because by sharing a Verizon plan with my wife's family I can save some $40 per month and get better service than AT&T offers in my area -- the maps don't lie; although there's nothing wrong with AT&T's "coverage," they have no 3G service in vast areas of the country, so when you buy an iPhone here you don't get what you pay for.  But that's not what this blog is about... I'd like to offer some first impressions of how the Eris compares to the iPhone.

There's no question that the Android OS, and HTC's version of it, are modeled closely on the iPhone.  "Rip-off" would not be too strong a word, and it shows that in some cases they weren't able to copy features they would have liked to, due to Apple's patents.  But they've also made some improvements that Apple should take note of.  I'd like to focus in particular on the back button.

How many times has this happened to you: you're reading an email on your iPhone or iPod Touch.  You click a link, which opens Safari.  You finish reading the page and want to return to the email.  Unless there's a shortcut I haven't discovered yet, the only way to get back where you were is to click the Home button, then Mail, because the back button in Safari is disabled, because Safari doesn't know where you came from.  Although the difference between two taps and one is not a major time sink, it is disorienting; I always find myself wondering whether Mail will remember where I was.  (Sometimes I have to stop and think to remember that Mail is where I was!)  There are other examples, too; whenever you go from one app to another you lose your place and have to go back via the home screen.  And then there are the menus and dialog boxes: do you click Cancel?  Done?  Or the same thing you clicked to get into the menu?  There's no consistent interface.

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Android solves this problem by having a back button as part of the operating system, which is like a combination of the back button on a browser and the Esc key on a desktop computer.  (Actually, what it's like is the c button on a lot of Windows Mobile smartphones.)  When you click back, you go wherever you were before, whether that was in the same app or a different one.  It also gets you out of any dialog box or menu, freeing up screen real estate.  Because the fact of the matter is, a back button is not an optional thing to be added or not at the discretion of each app's designer.  You always need a back button, and  you need it to be consistent in its location and operation.  So why not give it a consistent place on the device?  Say, to one side of the home button?  It wouldn't have to be a moving part; the back button on the Eris is one of four silkscreened buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Now, I'm not saying the Eris is better than the iPhone.  There are plenty of ways that the iPhone is better.  I'm just saying this is one way the iPhone could be even better than it is, so I'm putting it on my wish list... along with an end to the AT&T monopoly!

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<p>Ben Stallings is a Web Developer for <em>Smartphone Magazine</em> and <em>iPhone Life</em>. He also does freelance Web development, specializing in the Drupal content-management system, under the name Interdependent Web. He lives in Emporia, Kansas.</p>