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The iPhone XR shows Apple admitting 3D Touch is a failure

Remember 3D Touch? Unless you’re a power iOS user you probably don’t. Or, well, you’d rather not. It’s been clear for some time now that the technology Apple lauded at its 2015 unveiling as the “next generation of multi-touch” most certainly wasn’t. For the mainstream iPhone user it’s just that annoying thing that gets in the way of what you’re actually trying to do.

What Apple actually made with 3D Touch is the keyboard shortcut of multi-touch. Aka a secret weapon for nerds only.

Pro geeks might be endlessly delighted about being able to learn the secrets of its hidden depths, and shave all-important microseconds off of their highly nuanced workflows. But everyone else ignores it.

Or at least tries to ignore it — until, in the middle of trying to do something important they accidentally trigger it and get confused and annoyed about what their phone is trying to do to them.

Tech veterans might recall that BlackBerry (remember them?!) tried something similarly misplaced a decade ago on one of its handsets — unboxing an unlovely (and unloved) clickable touchscreen, in the one-off weirdo BlackBerry Storm.

The Storm didn’t have the iconic physical BlackBerry keyboard but did have a touchscreen with on-screen qwerty keys you could still click. In short, madness!

Safe to say, no usage storms resulted then either — unless you’re talking about the storm of BlackBerry buyers returning to the shop demanding a replacement handset.

In Apple’s case, the misstep is hardly on that level. But three years on from unveiling 3D Touch, it’s now ‘fessing up to its own feature failure — as the latest iPhone line-up drops the pressure-sensing technology entirely from the cheapest of the trio: The iPhone XR.

The lack of 3D Touch on the XR will help shave off some manufacturing cost and maybe a little thickness from the device. Mostly though it shows Apple recognizing it expended a lot of engineering effort to make something most iPhone users don’t use and don’t want to use — given, as TC’s Brian Heater has called it, the iPhone XR is the iPhone for the rest of us.

It isn’t a budget handset, though. The XR does pack Apple’s next-gen biometric technology, Face ID, for instance, so contains a package of sophisticated sensor hardware lodged in its own top notch.

That shows Apple is not cheaping out here. Rather it’s making selective feature decisions based on what it believes iPhone users want and need. So the clear calculation in Cupertino is lots of iPhone users simply don’t need 3D Touch.

At the same time, company execs heaped praise on Face ID at its event this week, saying the technology has proved wildly popular with users. Yet they glossed over the simultaneous depreciation of 3D Touch at the end of the iPhone line without a word of explanation.

Compare the two technologies and it’s easy to see why.

Face ID’s popularity is hardly surprising. It’s hard to think of a simpler interaction than a look that unlocks.

Not so fiddly 3D Touch — which requires a press that’s more than a tap and kind of akin to a push or a little shove. Push too softly and you’ll get a tap which takes you somewhere you weren’t trying to go. But go in too hard from the start and the touchscreen starts to feel like work and/or wasted effort.

On top of that the sought for utility can itself feel pointless — with, for example, content previews that can be horribly slow to load, so why not just tap and look at the email in the first place?

With all the fingering and faffing around 3D Touch is like the Goldilocks of user interfaces: Frustration is all but guaranteed unless you have an awful lot of patience to keep going and going until you get it just right. And who, but power users, can be bothered with that?

For the ‘everyman’ iPhone XR, Apple has swapped 3D Touch for a haptic feedback feature (forgettably named Haptic Touch) — that’s presumably mostly intended to be a sticking plaster to smooth out any fragmentation cracks across the iPhone estate, i.e. in the rare instances where developers have made use of 3D Touch to create in-app shortcuts that people do actually want to use.

If, as we’ve suggested, the iPhone XR ends up being the iPhone that ships in serious quantities there will soon be millions of iOS users without access to 3D Touch at all. So Apple is relegating the technology it once called the future of multi-touch to what it really was: An add-on power feature for pro users.

Pro users are also the people most likely to be willing to spend the biggest bucks on an iPhone — and so will happily shell out to own the iPhone XS or XS Max (which do retain 3D Touch, at least for now).

So while 3D Touch might keep incrementally helping to shift a few extra premium iPhones at the top of the range, it isn’t going to be shifting any paradigms.

Multitouch — combined with generous screen real estate — has been more than good enough on that front.

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