Apple has a very enviable problem. Its iPhone has been so well received that it’s tough to impress people with new models. That’s especially true now that millions of iPhone users have their hands on the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus — the models unveiled a year ago that are finally larger than the original 4 inch iPhones and on-par with competitive products.
On Wednesday, Tim Cook and company did their best to impress with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. The phones look like their predecessors, but Apple is trying to convince us that they’re much better, with ads that proclaim, “The only thing that’s changed is everything.” The claim is far more than pure marketing. As their newest TV ad points out, “it responds to the pressure of your finger so you can peek into stuff and pop stuff open, the camera shoots 4K video and — when taking selfies — your screen is the flash. It also shows off how photos have changed — they move now.”
As is often the case with new technology, Apple is solving problems we didn’t know we had with solutions that most of us never even thought about. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whether these solutions will significantly improve our experience or whether they’re just more things that our phones can do that most of us don’t want to bother with.
I had a few minutes to play with the new phone immediately after the announcement, which is far too little time to fully understand the new features. That requires using the device for at least a few days. But based on what I saw, I do think that the so-called 3D Touch (Apple calls it Force Touch on the Mac and Watch) has, so far, unproven potential to become an important enhancement to the user interface.
I used 3D Touch to peek inside an email and then pressed just a bit harder to open it and pressed yet again to reach a place where I could respond. These gestures did streamline my experience with the message, but I didn’t come away instantly convinced that they will save time or frustration in the long run. But that’s mostly because I have never been all that frustrated with how existing phones — both iPhone and Android — handle opening email. The same was true when I tested it with text messaging.
I was, however, impressed with how it enables you to control the camera, enabling you for example to switch from the rear to selfie camera based on how you press, rather than having to hunt for the selfie icon. I am also intrigued about how Instagram will use pressure-sensitive touch to control how you view photos and am looking forward to seeing how other app developers incorporate this new way of interacting.
Again, the proof is in the usage, not in how impressed people were by Apple’s on-stage demo or its slickly produced promotional video narrated by design guru Jony Ive. Once Apple releases the new phones in October, we’ll find out whether this is just a clever design enhancement or an essential feature that will cause us to wonder how we ever lived without it.
Apple is far from the only company to introduce interesting new features that we never knew we needed. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been testing the new Samsung Galaxy Edge+, which like its smaller sister, the Galaxy Edge, features a wrap-around screen that is capable of showing you missed alerts and notifications and even a “night clock” that shows you a dim clock to peek at when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Like the iPhone’s 3D Touch, these features are very impressive in a demo, but I haven’t found them to be of much use in the real world. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the phone. It’s practically a work of art, but as pretty as it is, the wrap-around screen hasn’t improved my life.
If you had asked me about Siri or Google Now’s voice features before I had lived with them for awhile, I might have questioned their utility, but now I can’t imagine using a phone without them. I stuck some Velcro on the back of the Galaxy S6 Edge+ phone and on the dashboard of my car, so the phone is perched where I can see Google Maps when I drive and if I need to program the GPS, I simply say “OK Google,” and tell it where I want to go. Apple’s Siri is equally adept at setting your destination in Apple’s mapping app and Microsoft’s new Cortana, in Windows 10, allows you to talk to your PC as well as Windows phones.
These voice features also let you place calls, which is now how I place nearly all my calls even when I’m not driving. It’s just easier to say “Call Patti,” than to select her name even from a quick dial setting.
So, congratulations Apple for once again re-inventing how we interact with phones.
And let’s touch-basein a few weeks to see just how good an idea it really was.