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The iPhone XR shows how unnecessary 3D Touch has always been

The iPhone XR shows how unnecessary 3D Touch has always been

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A friend recently handed me their iPhone to look through some photos, and I pressed in to pop one open with 3D Touch. What I’d done surprised them — not because of the photo choice, but because they’d never seen this feature before on the phone they’d been using for months.

This seems to be the story of 3D Touch: it’s a fascinating idea with the potential to completely rework the basic user interface of a smartphone that has gone fairly unnoticed. And now, three years after it was introduced, Apple seems to be on the way to phasing it out.

“If it’s just a demo feature and a month later nobody is really using it, this is a huge waste of engineering talent.”

While both the new iPhone XS and XS Max include 3D Touch, Apple has chosen not to include the feature on the iPhone XR. Yes, that phone is cheaper, and Apple had to strip out some features, but 3D Touch has been included on iPhones in that price range since it was introduced not too long ago, so this feels less like necessary cost savings and more like planned omission.

There have always been a few core problems with 3D Touch. For one, its use often amounted to the right click of a mouse, which is funny coming from the company that famously refused to put a dedicated right button on its mice or trackpads. And selecting from those right click options was rarely faster or a substantially more useful way of getting something done than just tapping the button and manually navigating to where you needed to go.

People also didn’t know the feature was there. The iPhone did little to train users on 3D Touch. And even the people who knew it was there had no way to tell which icons supported it without just 3D pressing everything to see what happened. Apple pundit John Gruber commented earlier this year that it was “baffling that there’s no visual indication of what can be 3D touched,” while linking out to a simple design proposal that suggested a way for Apple to move forward, if it really wanted 3D Touch to take off.

This created a failing feedback loop. Users didn’t know 3D Touch was there or which buttons supported 3D Touch, so developers had little reason to add support. More importantly, not all iPhones included 3D Touch, so the feature, by necessity, could never be used for something more critical than a right click or as a secondary way of performing some other action.

That alone may have set 3D Touch up to fail, but Apple didn’t help much, either. The company could have implemented the feature in more central ways, made its presence more obvious, or created apps that took advantage of the feature’s nuanced pressure sensitivity. Instead, 3D Touch has stayed the same since it launched. And the fact that Apple isn’t including it on the iPhone most people are likely to buy this year gives developers even less of a reason to support it.

3D Touch’s replacement speaks to how useless the technology has become

Apple isn’t entirely removing the concept of 3D Touch from the iPhone XR. Instead, the phone will include something Apple is calling Haptic Touch, which will make a click when you activate a button’s secondary feature by pressing and holding it.

But that replacement underscores just how useless 3D Touch has really become: it’s not more than a very, very fancy long press. That’s something phones have always been capable of. And despite the name, I’ve found long press features to be faster and easier to use than their 3D Touch equivalent. Instagram, for instance, lets you preview photos with a 3D Touch on the iPhone or a long press on Android. I find the Android version to be simpler and quicker.

Though Apple seems to have quickly moved on from 3D Touch, the feature’s move toward such a hasty obsolescence is a major failure for the company. Like Siri on the iPhone 4S and Touch ID on the iPhone 5S, 3D Touch was the key differentiating feature introduced on the iPhone 6S. Apple spent 10 minutes discussing the feature onstage. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing leader, called it a “tremendous breakthrough” that would be “just as profound” as multitouch, and the company put together one of its classic Jony Ive design videos to explain how it worked. Aubrey Plaza was hired to star in ads that showed off the new tech.

Apple also gave Bloomberg access to its design studio and let the publication speak with some top executives to profile all the work that they’d put into the new feature. The piece included a choice quote from Schiller that, at the time, made it sound like Apple had leaped years ahead of its competitors. But in hindsight, it shows how much of a mistake 3D Touch was:

“Engineering-wise, the hardware to build a display that does what [3D Touch] does is unbelievably hard,” says Schiller. “And we’re going to waste a whole year of engineering — really, two — at a tremendous amount of cost and investment in manufacturing if it doesn’t do something that [people] are going to use. If it’s just a demo feature and a month later nobody is really using it, this is a huge waste of engineering talent.”

That’s two years of work Apple could have put into something else that it instead put into a display technology that, in Schiller’s words, turned out to be “just a demo feature.” And three years later, nobody is really using it — Apple included.