When Apple launched the iPhone 6s/Plus, 3D Touch was one of the headline features. Apple devoted a full four-minute video to showing what it does and how it works. Even today, visit the Apple website and click on the iPhone 6s, and it’s the first thing you see. Apple’s summary of the phone is ‘3D Touch, 12MP photos, 4K video.’
The first tab at the top of the screen is 3D Touch. The first video linked is the one for 3D Touch. Scroll down the page for the detail of the phone, and 3D Touch – ‘the next generation of multi-touch’ – is again the first feature to be shown. Clearly Apple thinks it’s a big deal.
And yet, the company just this week unveiled not just one but two new iOS devices, neither of which offers the feature. This is perhaps understandable in the case of the iPhone SE – Apple needed some tech distinctions between its flagship phone and its new budget model. But it’s an odd omission from a brand new iPad …
I’ve heard two theories about why Apple hasn’t rolled out 3D Touch more widely. The first is that yield rates have been poor. That would limit the volumes in which the system can be produced, and make it an expensive feature to add. If that is indeed the case, it adds a second reason for Apple to withhold it from its cheapest ever iPhone.
The second is that there are significant challenges involved in scaling-up 3D Touch to larger screens, and that this is the reason we haven’t yet seen it on an iPad.
While both suggestions are unconfirmed, I think they are likely true – because otherwise, Apple’s behavior doesn’t make sense. There’s no other reason I can see to hold back from the latest iPad a feature the company champions so strongly.
But even if it’s manufacturing challenges holding back the wider rollout, it still effectively places the feature on hold for a large chunk of iOS users.
Nor is hardware support the only issue. While we have seen an increasing number of apps adding support for 3D Touch, it has still been adopted by only a minority of them. I haven’t seen any hard numbers, but if you follow the ‘View 3D Touch apps in the App Store‘ link on Apple’s website, it shows only 56.
Clearly there are many more than that, but a random sampling of the third-party apps on the first two screens on my iPhone shows that just 9 out of 37 of them support 3D Touch. Whatever the overall percentage, it’s low.
If adding 3D Touch support to an app was a complex task, you could understand developers deciding not to bother until Apple makes it available on more devices. But it’s not: adding Home screen actions is extremely easy. For whatever reason, developers don’t appear to share Apple’s view of the importance of the feature.
And it’s not just third-party developers who haven’t fully embraced the feature: there are still native Apple apps that don’t. The Activity app, for one. That’s a pretty crazy state of affairs.
My sampling of my own apps brings up another big problem with 3D Touch. The only way I could tell which ones support it was to force-touch each one in turn. Trial-and-error. There’s no other way to tell.
As Forbes contributor Gordon Kelly put it in a Facebook discussion we were having yesterday: “For the record, I like 3D Touch, but it needs to be implemented in a way that removes the guesswork of what is and isn’t 3D Touch enabled.”
I’m going to be a little less polite than him. Just think about that from a UI perspective: an app may or may not support a headline feature of the phone, and the only way I can tell is by randomly stabbing at apps with my finger like a deranged monkey. That is utterly appalling UI design, and there’s no excuse for it from anyone – far less from Apple, which prides itself on usability above all else.
I would argue it’s also poor UI to have an operating system feature that may or may not be available depending on the device you’re using at the time. Sure, I understand that older devices may not be able to support all of the latest features, and that there are some features only practical on a larger screen. But someone switching between the flagship iPhone and the very latest iPad should not be seeing a feature on their phone that they can’t use on their iPad.
So 3D Touch seems to be trapped in a Catch-22 situation. App developers are seeing what looks like half-hearted support for it from Apple, and not even bothering to do the pretty trivial work involved in supporting Home screen actions, while Apple can’t really make too much fuss about a feature that some of its high-end iOS devices don’t have at all, and others have in only a relatively small percentage of apps.
This seems to me to call into question the future of the feature. Even if 3D Touch makes it into iPads in the next release, it will by then be such old news Apple can’t really hype it to any significant degree. And there will be a whole new generation of iPhone owners – those attracted by the ability to buy the very latest iPhone at a far more affordable level – who will never have experienced it.
One final personal point. When I first experienced 3D Touch, I was extremely impressed with it. I said at the time that I saw it as a good reason to upgrade from the iPhone 6 to the 6s. But I do have to say that the novelty has somewhat worn off – in part, because of ‘stabbing monkey’ syndrome: it gets annoying force-touching an app that does nothing, so I’ve largely stopped bothering. My use of 3D Touch is limited to those apps I use most frequently.
I do still think it’s a good feature. I like being able to upload a photo to Facebook right from the Home screen. I like the ease of being able to message a recent contact, resume a recent podcast, instantly recall the most recent photo I took, send a tweet or add a new note. But I’m not sure it’s the must-have feature I thought it might be, especially when I can’t use it on my iPad.
The real test for me will be when I try an experimental switch to the iPhone SE. I do think 3D Touch may be the thing I miss most. But I also suspect I’m going to be able to live without it – and I think the way things have gone so far, I may not be alone.
What’s your view of 3D Touch? Must-have feature, nice-to-have or meh? Does it annoy you to have it on your iPhone but not your iPad? Do you think it has a future? Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.