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.
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.
Apple also gaveBloombergaccess 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.