What Apple’s 3D Touch aims to do: replace the physical iPhone home button


Buttons: who needs ’em? Photo by H is for Home on Flickr.

Apple is a very measured company. It tends not to rush into things. It lays down the foundations, and then it builds on them.

Take the example of Apple Pay. Clearly, executives could years ago see the potential of NFC-based payments; any company in the smartphone business could. But how to implement it so that people would love using it, rather than tolerate it? As things stood three years ago, putting NFC into iPhones would be easy enough. However then you’d have to have an app or interface, and then the user would have to enter a PIN, and we all know that people are terrible both at remembering PINs, and at using long-enough ones for security. Google Wallet used an app+PIN method, and you had to be pretty determined to use it much.

For Apple, that’s too much work to impose on users, because if you’re trying to replace cash or card swiping (in the US) then you don’t replace it with something that’s more difficult and fiddly. It’s also part of why, despite there being millions of NFC-capable Android phones in the US, Google Wallet made no impact. The lack of NFC-capable tills in the US also played a big part – but Google Wallet never went outside the US, even though NFC-capable tills are plentiful in Europe. Clearly, Google’s heart wasn’t in it.

Make it simpler, stupid

So what’s a simpler yet more secure way to do payments? Biometrics, obviously, get around the “remember a password or PIN and enter it” hassle. Which biometric? Retina prints? Bit fussy. Fingerprints? Sure, because you’re already holding the phone. But that means having a reliable fingerprint reader. And NFC.

You see the elements: fingerprint reading, and NFC. Apple clearly saw the potential, so in mid-2012 bought a fingerprint reader company (the best on the market, apparently). It then integrated that into the iPhone 5S for September 2013.

But not NFC. Apple clearly could have put both fingerprint reading and NFC into its new phones at once. But it didn’t.

“Touch ID” laid the foundation for getting people used to using their fingerprints to unlock the phone – and an API meant the fingerprint reader could be used in other apps (Dropbox, etc) and to pay for stuff in the App Store or iTunes Store.

The plan, obviously, was to introduce NFC+fingerprint reading in the iPhone 6, when people would be used to the idea of the fingerprint as a “means to pay”. It also helped that it would be part of an upgrade path: 5S has fingerprint but no NFC; iPhone 6 has fingerprint and NFC. Clear differentiation, but also careful laying of foundations. By looking back, the path forward is obvious.

The path forward from 3D Touch

Now on to 3D Touch. It’s available under different names but the same concept on the new iPhones, some Macs (MacBook and some Retina Pros) and the Watch.

It’s clever – though as Chris Lacy and Ben Sandofsky discussed in The Blerg podcast just after the announcement, apps that are 3D Touch-enabled don’t seem to have any way to make that evident; only by pressing them do you discover whether they have that capability.

You can say that 3D Touch is just Android’s “long press”. It sort of is, and isn’t. The key difference is that long press didn’t have haptic feedback. It just happened: you pressed for longer than usual, and you got a laundry list of options. Google has deprecated “long press” in favour of “hamburger menus”, which are visible all the time on screen. This speaks to the point Lacy and Sandofsky make: user interface affordances that aren’t visibly signposted on a screen can be really hard to find. Apple should add some sort of edging or 3D effect to the icons to make this clear; perhaps app designers will find some common method of doing so.

With 3D Touch, you learn how much harder to press because you get a little pushback when you succeed; if you try pressing on something that doesn’t offer it (I tried the Settings app, hoping for a giant menu of settings – ha) then you get three quick low-intensity taps back, a sort of “nothing here” signal.

3D Touch can also invoke the app switcher: press on the left-hand side of the screen and you get the fan of available apps. (I found this tricky; press-and-roll the thumb inwards seemed to work best for me. Again, practice would improve it; the fingerprint reader used to be “hard” to use at first but is now second nature.)

So fast forward a bit, and in the near future you’ll have all sorts of apps offering 3D Touch capability right from the home screen. It has an API, so developers will surely be spending the next few weeks feverishly aiming for app releases on or around September 25 that use it.

What happens a year from now? Apple introduces new phones, and they of course incorporate 3D Touch. The iPhone 6 becomes the “low-end” model, and thus the only one without it.

But what this new interaction really enables is movement between apps, and quick jumps into apps, that don’t rely on your pressing the home button at all.

Note also how iOS 9 includes a “Back” button of sorts (in the top left corner, if you’ve come from one app to another, you can go straight back – rather than using the home button to invoke the app switcher).

(Screenshot from Jeff Brynes’s thoughts on iOS 9 beta 5)

What’s all that – the “back” button, the 3D Touch capability – about? It’s about not using the Home button.

You should never go Home

To date, the iPhone has been built around the Home button, yet it is increasingly an encumbrance: if you want to go to the icon screen, you have to press it. To get the app switcher, you have to press it. To switch between apps (unless you’re invoking something like “Create event” in Calendar from Mail) you have to press it.

That’s a lot of pressing, and I bet that mechanical failure of Home buttons is one thing that keeps showing up in Apple’s fault reports. Broken screens are easily replaced (and people can get by with broken screens for a looong time), but broken home buttons not so. Grit can get in. Water can get in. Constant movement isn’t ideal in electronics. You might say that it’s just tough if peoples’ Home buttons break, but compared to Android phones which don’t have them, it’s an obvious point of weakness – and customer dissatisfaction.

However, the Home button is needed as the place where your fingerprint is read. But that doesn’t need a moving home button; it just needs a circle of sapphire glass through which your print is read.

Are the foundations that have been laid becoming clear yet? In the new Macbooks and the Force Touch-enabled Retina Pros, the keypad seems to click when you press it. Seems to. Yet in fact it doesn’t move, as Matt Panzarino noted back in March:

The new trackpad does not move, at all.

When you ‘click’ it, it ‘clicks’, but it doesn’t actually click. There is an audible ‘click’ sound (that’s what the silly picture below is, me listening) and it does in fact feel like it clicks, but that is merely an illusion.

There is a set of vibrating motors underneath that provides ‘force feedback’, also known as haptics in some applications. This feedback fools your finger into believing that you’ve pressed down on a hinged button, the way your current trackpad works. This feedback relies on phenomenon called lateral force fields (LFFs), which can cause humans to experience vibrations as haptic ‘textures’. This can give you the feel of a ‘clickable’ surface or even depth. The Force Touch feature of the new trackpad allows you to press ‘deeper’, giving you additional levels of tapping feedback. The effect is done so well that you actually feel like you’re pressing down deeper into a trackpad that still isn’t moving at all. It’s so good it’s eerie.

What if – and it’s just speculation, you know, but what if – you were to put that “seems to move but doesn’t” technology into a phone? Yes, you’d have 3D Touch. That’s happened. But what if you put it into an iPhone home button? You could have something that seemed to move, and felt like it moved, but didn’t. You can double-click the Macbook trackpad; you could double-click a 3D Touch home button. But nothing moves. There’s just a piece of glass, and a sapphire circle for reading, and that’s it.

Think: when do you press the home button? When the phone is off and you’re enabling it, or to switch apps, or to get back to the home screen (so you can switch between app screens).

Most of the time – that is, time when you’re in apps – the Home button serves no purpose at all, except to be a grit-attracting water-allowing problem. Replacing it with a not-moving solid piece of glass would be a design and fault-resistance win.

Here’s how 3D Touch works. In the pictures below, I’ve force-pressed on the relevant icons that you see highlighted from the main screen:

3D Touch brings up contacts

No need to enter the app – 3D Touch brings up recent or favourite contacts in Phone and Messages


Force.. er, 3D-touch on the phone or messages icon and you get your three most recent interactions (or possibly three top favourites for the phone – this may change)

Music and News are 3D Touch-enabled

3D Touch lets you jump straight into elements of apps such as Music and News


Want some Apple Music without opening the app? Or to go straight to News? It’s just a forceful touch away

3D Touch on Dropbox and Instagram

3D Touch on Dropbox and Instagram


Third-party apps can incorporate it too

And as I said, you can also use 3D Touch to invoke the app switcher (I had a picture, but it just looks like the app switcher). So you could, if you were determined, spend entire sessions and never touch the home button – except if you needed Siri (except that would be available via “Hey Siri”) or to make a payment. Only one of those needs a moving home button, and is replaceable too. (You can get to the main icon screen by invoking the app switcher then choosing the icon screen, so no home button needed there either.)

Is this reasonable? Quite separately, Neil Cybart has had the same idea:

Apple’s new 3D Touch feature not only brings an additional user interface to iPhone, but should be thought of as the missing piece for allowing iPhone screens to become even larger without increasing the iPhone’s form factor. 3D Touch begins to reduce the need for the home button, which has turned into a type of reset button used to switch between apps. By removing the iPhone home button and filling the additional space with screen real estate, the iPhone will only gain more power and capabilities when compared to devices like the iPad mini and Air.

His piece appeared after I’d drafted this. Cybart is smart, so I’m glad to find we’re thinking the same way.

Which means that…

Getting 3D/Force Touch into the Home button requires the technology to improve somewhat, and become dependable, and people have to get used to the idea. But after that, what becomes possible?

• The Home button stops being a separate physical element, and just becomes an area on the screen

• You can have a larger screen in the same form factor: you don’t need the black band at the bottom of the device where the home button lives (notice how Android OEMs have been able to enlarge the screen because they don’t have to have a physical button). Weird to think, but Apple could offer a smaller device with the same size screen, thus answering people who don’t like the physical size of the iPhone 6 but do like a bigger screen

• You don’t have the mechanical problems of a moving button

• You can provide clearer haptic feedback when people press the button – the difference between a long press (for Siri) and a double-press becomes evident to the user.

It all makes sense (as these things so often do). So, when will it happen? Only two choices really: next year, with the “iPhone 7”, or after that. Or, OK, third choice, never. I mean, perhaps Jony Ive is really wedded to having a moving home button. But I bet he isn’t. Getting rid of moving trackpads in the MacBook seems to me just the start; the first brick of the building. The Watch was the second part, and iPhones the next. Now wait for next year.

4 thoughts on “What Apple’s 3D Touch aims to do: replace the physical iPhone home button

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