Going Deeper with 3D Touch

Apple Video

Apple’s flurry of product releases last week nearly buried the introduction of 3D Touch, the company’s new screen navigation solution for smart phones. But overlooking this technology would be a big mistake.

The truth is that 3D Touch aims to solve some gnarly problems that plague smart phones. For all their razzle dazzle the current generation of smart phone interfaces don’t hold a candle to Web Browsers that offer multiple tabs, address bars and keyboard shortcuts. With their small screens and app architectures, today’s mobile devices feel strangely clunky, especially when we switch from app to app. This is precisely what Apple plans to change.

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, said as much during a video presentation at Apple’s San Francisco lollapalooza last week. In his measured cadence Ive explained how 3D Touch “Works on the Home screen, giving you shortcuts to the things you do frequently.”

For those of us who remember desktop machines, Apple’s 3D Touch runs like a virtual mouse with right and left click capabilities. Instead of a mouse, however, you use your finger to tap more or less forcefully on your sensor-equipped screen. “Press lightly and it gives you a peek at the content. Continue pressing and it pops you into the content itself,” Ive explained. With 3D Touch, “You can dip in and out of where you are without losing a sense of your context.”

Apple video

And that, dear friends, is the heart of the issue. 3D Touch is Apple’s solution to a problem that Apple created. Perhaps unintentionally, but real nonetheless. Today’s smart phone interfaces are the biggest context killers since the era of punch cards. Glass keyboards and app icons were innovations that helped designers shrink mobile computers so they fit into our pockets. 6.5 product cycles later, Apple is looking to restore the collateral damage it caused in the first place.

Actually, 3D Touch appears to be a promising step. Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior VP of Software Engineering, talked about opening the technology up to partners including Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram and WeChat. “What’s great about 3D Touch is it lets you take action on apps without having to open them,” he described.

Beyond “Peek and Pop”

But that’s just one dimension of restoring context. Other solutions are already available. One of the most interesting — and wildly successful — is the Chinese version of WeChat. Despite what most Americans think, WeChat is not simply a messaging app. It has the ability to provide content, shopping and mobile payments without changing context.

A feature that makes the WeChat interface so compelling is that its design never strays from the principle that the smartphone is first and foremost a communications device. Sure apps are important, even invaluable. But with WeChat they co-exist more naturally in the context of what most users actually are doing.

Most of the time we use our smartphones to communicate with people. According to a research report by Accel Partners, people post more than 73 billion text messages each day. Pew Research Center data indicates that 97% of all smartphone owners use text messaging, far more than any other app on the planet.

IBM PC Keyboard

Apple’s ‘Peek and Pop’ interface may well be a useful step toward maintaining a semblance of context on smartphone home screens, but it was not the first and it won’t be the last. Just as the mouse and touchpads replaced complicated keyboards, new ways to perform services will make stand-alone apps feel antiquated. In the future, users will be able to seamlessly integrate popular online services, including search, payments, bookings, content sharing and social postings, into the conversations they are having.