Apple recently introduced their new line of iPhones, the 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. The models received some pretty significant upgrades like longer battery life, a new camera system, and improved durability. But Apple actually removed a feature called 3D Touch, which debuted with the iPhone 6s back in 2015.
And this has caused quite a bit of outcry from users who used the feature for things like previewing links, peaking into emails, and controlling the cursor.
So why did Apple remove a feature that defined an entire generation of iPhones and provided so much functionality to users?
So let’s start off by covering the short history of 3D Touch. The feature debuted in 2015 with the iPhone 6s and was considered by Apple to be just
as revolutionary as multi-touch. They said 3D Touch would be a completely new way of interacting with your iPhone. And if you know how influential multi-touch ended up being after the original iPhone was introduced, you’ll understand just how significant of a claim Apple made.
Now reception to 3D Touch was overwhelmingly positive. Since customers and reviewers alike were looking forward to the advanced functionality enabled by the new technology.
Now Apple showed off what 3D Touch could do during the iPhone 6s keynote, by demonstrating capabilities like quickly viewing emails, previewing calendar events, and even previewing flight details all without being dragged into another app or taken into a different window.
So to put it simply, the purpose of 3D Touch was to quickly preview content instead of switching back and forth between apps or tapping in and out of emails and text conversations. This would effectively make navigating iOS faster and more effortless.
Now in order to make the 3D Touch experience possible, Apple had to make software and hardware changes to the new iPhone 6s. When it came to software, iOS needed new window overlay container in which content could be previewed. Also, Apple had to decide what that content preview would look like. Requiring a unique optimization for each app.
But it’s important to note that Apple only had control over their own native apps. It was up to developers to create their own 3D Touch shortcuts for third party apps. And when it came to hardware, Apple’s engineers had to integrate capacitive sensors into the iPhone’s backlight.
That way the display could measure small changes in distance between the cover glass and backlight. 3D Touch also required something called the Taptic Engine, which could deliver shorter, more precise haptic vibrations and taps than a standard phone vibration motor.
And all of these components took up extra space inside the phone, which is the main reason why the iPhone 6s was thicker than the 6. Now when discussing the launch of 3D Touch with the 6S, it’s crucial to understand a very simple fact. 3D Touch was a hidden, nonessential feature.
Now what do I mean by that. Well, the feature was hidden since it wasn’t something users could actually see. Compare this to a new camera system, face ID, or the home button. Those features are visible through hardware cues like a lens, a display notch, or a button. It’s clear to users that those capabilities are available for them to use.
But that’s not the case with other features like multitouch, swipe navigation, or 3D Touch. For example, when smartphones began transitioning to touch screens, many users had to be told or discover for themselves that they could actually touch the screen. Since it didn’t look any different from non-touch variants.
And when the new iPhone X was released, some users weren’t sure how to return to the home screen or switch between apps.
And that’s because the device’s swipe navigation was inconspicuous. But 3D Touch had a unique disadvantage in that it wasn’t necessary to learn in order to use the device. Users could continue using their iPhone 6s the same way they used any previous model. Whereas iPhone X users were forced to learn swipe navigation since it was necessary in using the device.
And Apple understood this problem which is why they made a huge investment in educating customers about 3D Touch when launching the iPhone 6s. Not only did Apple run tv ads showcasing 3d touch, but they also installed giant tables with built-in screens at select Apple stores. Each table featured two rows of iPhones on display which customers could press.
This triggered a ripple that moved from the iPhone’s display to the table’s large screen underneath. The ripple’s size was determined by how hard the iPhone’s display was pressed, measured by 3d touch. Now these tables were only installed at select apple stores so you may not remember seeing them in your city, but they attracted quite a bit of attention.
And while they may have helped bring attention to 3d touch on the iPhone 6s, it definitely wasn’t enough. Because the number one problem that plagued 3d touch year after year, was the fact that most iPhone users didn’t even know the feature existed. Especially when you consider that Apple only heavily promoted the feature with the iPhone 6s.
The iPhone 7, 8, X, and XS debuted with newer features that took attention away from 3d touch. And that created a problem. Because most people don’t buy a new iPhone every year, and if you just so happened to skip the 6s, it’d be very easy to overlook its flagship feature, 3d touch.
Phil Schiller actually spoke to this issue when the iPhone 6s was first introduced, saying, “engineering-wise, the hardware to build a display that does what 3d touch does is unbelievably hard. 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.”
And, sadly, that pretty much turned out to be the case with 3d touch. Not only did most customers not know about its existence, but even when they discovered the feature, they still didn’t find it compelling enough to use. Since tech-inclined users are more likely to utilize 3d touch, but even if you do use the feature on a daily basis it’s important to recognize the reality that most casual iPhone users don’t.
Birth of Haptic Touch
And that’s exactly the reason why Apple ditched 3D Touch with the XR and new iPhone 11 models. Its components were taking up valuable space inside the device that could be dedicated to something like a larger battery, which would benefit virtually every iPhone user. But Apple only removed the 3d touch hardware from its devices, most of the software features still exist under a new name, haptic touch.
Where users simply tap and hold on an app or link to trigger the same shortcuts and previews introduced by 3d touch. But many people feel this new haptic approach is inferior to 3d touch, full of compromises that make the feature less useful. So let’s go over some of the changes Apple made with the transition to haptic touch.
One of the most obvious differences is that shortcuts and previews are no longer triggered by the pressure of your touch, but rather the length. And this could make the action take a little bit longer. Also, there’s no more distinction between what was called a peak and a pop, since those actions were determined by changes in pressure.
And that means you’ll have to perform an extra tap to follow a link or open an email. But the feature I miss the most is trackpad mode.
Where pressing on the iPhone’s keyboard would turn it into a trackpad, giving you precise control over the cursor. And while that’s still possible with haptic touch by holding down the space bar, it’s missing the best part of the feature.
Where you could press the trackpad and highlight words or sentences effortlessly. And that’s the feature haptic touch was not able to replicate. But it’s also worth noting that 3d touch wasn’t flawless.
How users feel
The majority of iPhone users didn’t even know 3d touch existed, a feature whose hardware was taking up valuable space inside the device.
And many of those who did know about 3d touch still didn’t bother using it, and it’s not hard to understand why. 3d touch was implemented unevenly, some developers were utilizing 3d touch in their apps, while others didn’t support it at all.
And this turned into a guessing game for users. Also, if an app did support the feature, users had to figure out what kind of shortcuts it offered, and decide whether or not it was worth using them.
So you can see that it was much easier to simply ignore the feature entirely and continue using the iPhone just as you always had.
And that’s why, as Apple transitions to haptic touch on the new iPhone 11 models, most customers won’t even notice anything was removed.