The delayed promise of Apple's new 3D Touch

The company unveiled an upgraded iPhone on Wednesday featuring 3D Touch technology that can recognize gestures, but some developers say the benefits for users may not be immediately apparent.

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, discusses the new 3D Touch technology available on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, at the company's media event on Wednesday.

With its announcement of an upgraded iPhone and a new mobile operating system featuring more sensitive “3D Touch” technology, Apple appears to be focusing on the many ways users interact with digital devices.

Most significantly, the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, unveiled on Wednesday at the company’s annual media event in San Francisco,  will now recognize a wider range of gestures. The new mobile operating system, iOS 9, will allow what Apple is calling a soft touch “peek” – a pop-up view of an application for quick uses such as reviewing the contents of an e-mail – and a harder press “pop,” which moves to a new screen.

Software developers say these more incremental changes to existing products – which were first made available at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June – mean that designers can develop mobile applications that make use of the new features over time.

“The users don’t say, ‘Oh those new features have come out, now I’ll use them.’ It takes a couple of years for developers to really leverage those features,” says Ryan Matzner, director of business development at Fueled, a mobile applications developer based in New York.

Once apps start to embrace these new features, Mr. Matzner says, “Things are a little bit easier, a little bit faster, and people are using their phones a little bit more or a little bit less.”

“The clear trajectory to this technology is that it’ll feel like a button, it’ll vibrate or buzz. You’re already kind of seeing that, but it’s easy to confuse push notifications, like a buzz or double buzz [with interactive feedback],” he adds.

This type of interactive response as a user presses harder or more softly, is often called “haptic” feedback. It has been introduced – with varying degrees of success – on mobile phones using Google’s competing Android operating system, but Wednesday's announcement points to a change in how Apple is using the technology.

While the company often trumpets new products at events such as Wednesday’s launch as revolutionary, many Apple products – such as the original iPhone, introduced in 2007, or the Apple TV, debuted in 2006, are introduced after competitors unveil their own versions.

But Apple’s signature minimalist designs and user-friendly software – along with the brand’s cachet – often make the company’s products popular even if they are not the first in line, analysts say.

“In part they are responding to demand or potential for demand, but given who they are, they’re trying to make a market,” says Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at the market research firm Gartner who tracks the company.

Since the new features are only available on the newest generation of phones, some developers say their initial uses may be somewhat limited.

“3D Touch is exciting and will offer genuinely new ways to interact with iOS, but faces serious obstacles to its short term adoption in apps,” says Greg Pierce, founder of the mobile development company Agile Tortoise, which has introduced several products focused on note-taking and writing, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

The new gestures also present some design problems, Mr. Pierce says.

“Many users will not easily discover features which rely on 3D Touch, because they may not be tied to a button to other visible element on the screen," he says. "This is a problem for all features which rely on gestures, not unique to 3D Touch, but may make it difficult to get adoption of these features."

Mr. Nguyen, the analyst, says given that this year’s iPhone models are simply a redesigned version of last year’s iPhone 6, he’s more excited by Apple’s other announcements, including a new Apple TV featuring the interactive personal assistant Siri and a marketplace for mobile applications.

The company also unveiled a lower-cost iPhone payment program and a new iPad, the iPad Pro, which features a larger screen and an interactive stylus, but costs significantly more than previous models.

"The physical [interface] tends to be most obvious feature for a user. They first notice, ‘You can touch this,’ and ‘If you touch it harder you’ll get this.’ ” he says.  “But I feel the bigger and more impactful applications [for Apple] are with services and applications.”

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