Features in Need of a Purpose

April 6th, 2016

So one of Apple’s highly-touted features, which debuted on Apple Watch, is Force Touch. Basically, it brings up more contextual options when you tap and press the display. The 3D Touch version on the latest iPhones, except for the iPhone SE, is souped up by establishing two intensities, hard and harder, to bring up different choices.

Are you with me so far?

Now tapping and holding is easy enough. It’s takes a little work to get used to managing two intensities. I know I’ve tried it at the Apple Store, and I also used an Apple Magic Trackpad 2, which features Force Touch, for several weeks. It was on loan from Apple and I finally stopped using it altogether before I had to send it back. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I prefer to stick with my original Magic Mouse.

To put things in perspective, I dare say most of the people I’ve encountered aren’t even accustomed to a control-click or a right-click on a Mac. Either way, you bring up a contextual menu of commands related to the app or document in which you’re working. Indeed, some still believe you can only do that on a Windows PC, even though you could invoke its Mac counterpart since the late 1990s and Mac OS 8.

I suppose, in the scheme of things, pressing your finger a tad harder to bring up additional options might seem a tad simpler, although learning two levels of intensity takes some practice. It’s one of those neat-sounding features that seems more than it is, though it makes sense on a touchscreen as opposed to an interface based on a mouse or trackpad. Apple also touts its value for drawing, where the intensity with which the display is pressed can be used to deliver different line thicknesses and shapes.

Now in the quest to flesh out usability features, Apple could do worse. If you become accustomed to it, Force Touch or 3D Touch might be useful. Certainly having Force Touch is important on an Apple Watch, where the tiny display limits what you can do and how you can do it.

In the real world, I suspect those who use Force Touch or 3D Touch are in the minority. They are tools for power users, particularly those are are interested in doing productive things.

The long and short of it is that it’s clear Apple is running out of basic features to add to its gear, so they have to explore the extremes. So the implications of pressing harder are being explored, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple will consider multiple intensities going forward, rather than just two. To me, however, that would be extreme, something you might expect from Samsung, a company that adds features for the gee-whiz value rather than any practical use.

So consider Tilt to Scroll or the ability to scroll based on how you tilt your head. Both features have appeared on Samsung Galaxy smartphones. I suppose if they actually worked, they’d have some value, but they didn’t. At least not for me, and I gave them their due during the seven months in which I relied on Samsung handsets exclusively.

As I write this, all or most of the final features for the next versions of the OS for Macs and mobile gear have probably been set in stone. Some might not survive the final release, but the ones that will are no doubt being tested ahead of June’s WWDC. So the question arises: Is Apple going to return to the 200-plus feature addition or enhancement scheme, or concentrate more on fleshing out what’s there already? I suspect the former — or fear the former — since it often takes a few maintenance updates to get things to work efficiently.

In yesterday’s column on whether Apple will begin to call the Mac operating system macOS, something that has already been predicted in several places, I suggested that it would be nice to focus on fixing known ragged edges. Naming is all about marketing. I cited Mail as a blatant example of an app that has long-standing glitches. Sure, it’s also nice to have a few tentpole features that seem impressive in public demonstrations and help create demand for a product.

But Apple doesn’t charge for OS upgrades — not even for Macs anymore. Sure, Google is regularly adding new stuff to Android. But the adoption rate on Google’s platform tends to be slow and halting. The actual list of compelling new features in Windows 10 isn’t that large. A lot of it was about undoing the silliness of Windows 8/8.1 and making the OS closer in concept to Windows 7 with some frills of questionable value. All right, it supposedly auto-configures for a PC with a regular display or a touch display, and that is a good thing if you’re into convertible notebooks.

Apple stands alone in pushing out a raft of features, and as the operating systems mature, the list of what more they can do has to be diminishing rapidly. Sure there are ways to rethink how computer operating systems function. A greater level of voice control might make sense if your ideal computer is the one on the Starship Enterprise. There’s even talk that Siri will debut on the Mac this year.

So I reman optimistic for useful enhancements. By that I mean features I might actually use, and features most users will want to discover as well.

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One Response to “Features in Need of a Purpose”

  1. dfs says:

    This is part of a bigger problem Apple faces: some of its products, notably the iPhone and the iMac, have become so polished and refined that owners of current models don’t much of an incentive to replace them with newer models. For the company to fare well, it needs to move into new areas. 2016 is the Year of CarPlay, suddenly it’s all over the place. But that only buys Apple a little more time to figure out what to do next.

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