Apple's (AAPL 0.00%) next iPhone, the iPhone 6s, offers a number of notable improvements over its predecessor, including a faster processor and better camera. In terms of new features, however, 3D Touch stands above the rest. Like Force Touch on the Apple Watch and MacBook Pro, 3D Touch detects varying levels of pressure applied by the user, giving iPhone owners a new way to interact with their handset.
But the iPhone 6s isn't the only phone offering such a feature. Huawei's new Mate S includes similar functionality.
While Huawei's popularity has surged in China, the Mate S shouldn't steal the iPhone 6s' thunder. In fact, it serves to highlight some of the issues limiting Google's (GOOG -1.62%) (GOOGL -1.81%) competing Android platform.
A new way to interact with apps
To date, the iPhone's interface has been relatively binary. Sure, there are gestures like pinch-to-zoom and scroll, but when it comes to actually clicking on something, either the user taps on it or they don't. Either they open an email or they don't. Either they click on a link or they don't. The iPhone has been limited in its ability to register varying levels of force.
3D Touch on the iPhone 6S opens up entirely new possibilities. Now a light press on an address in iMessage shows a small map preview -- a hard press opens that address in the Apple Maps app. A light press on a photo thumbnail in the camera app shows a preview; a hard press opens the photo. Pressing and holding on an icon, like the camera app, brings up a variety of app-specific shortcuts (take a selfie, record a video).
Several third-party iOS apps also support 3D Touch, including the mobile game Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade and Dropbox. In time, it seems likely that the bulk of iOS developers will work to integrate 3D Touch into their apps. It will take some time for the feature to work its way through Apple's install base, but within four or five years, the majority of iPhones in use should support the feature.
Huawei responds with the Mate S
Huawei unveiled its latest flagship, the Mate S, earlier this month. Like the iPhone 6s, the Mate S includes a special pressure-sensitive screen, allowing users to interact with the device in various ways depending on the level of pressure they exert. In its hands-on preview, Gizmodo concluded that it worked well, allowing Mate S owners to, among other things, zoom in on photos.
But there's a major problem with Huawei's implementation: It's extremely limited. In fact, not everyone who purchases a Mate S will even be able to take advantage of it, as it is restricted to Huawei's highest-end model, the 128GB version of the Mate S. Its own apps may support it, but there are no third-party Android apps that do.
Huawei has emerged as a top smartphone vendor in recent months. In the second quarter, research firm IDC reported that it was the third-largest seller of smartphones in the world, with nearly 9% market share (compared to 14.1% for Apple). Most of Huawei's growth, however, has been restricted to Europe and its home market of China -- it has almost no presence in the U.S., and doesn't plan to launch the Mate S stateside.
Even if Huawei were to equip all of its smartphones with pressure-sensitive screens, it would be unlikely to translate into much developer support, as its share of the larger Android market remains too small. Google's other hardware partners -- Samsung, Xiaomi, and others -- have made no announcements about similar systems, and Google has baked no pressure-sensitivity support into the Android operating system.
In time, all of this could change. When Apple introduced the iPhone 5s in 2013, fingerprint scanners were (outside of a few ill-fated Motorola phones) almost unheard of. But they've slowly grown in popularity. Android Marshmallow, the next version of Google's mobile operating system, includes native support for fingerprint scanners. The advantage Apple's iPhone once enjoyed in biometrics has pretty much fallen by the wayside, but it took several years.
The same could happen with pressure sensitivity. If it proves popular, Android OEMs and Google should eventually support it, and Android developers could subsequently follow. Until then, Apple's latest iPhone has an advantage over its rivals, and because of Android's fragmented nature, Huawei alone can't change that.