One of the big selling points that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) emphasized for its iPhone 6s and 6s Plus phones launched earlier this year was the inclusion of 3D Touch capability, which allows the devices to detect the pressure applied to their displays.
Apple spent a significant amount of time at the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus product launch event touting 3D Touch, as it was no doubt the most noticeable upgrade from the prior-generation iPhone 6 and 6 Plus phones.
According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) next-generation Galaxy S flagship, the Galaxy S7, will include a similar technology.
This isn't really a surprise
Apple's Jonathan Ive claimed in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that 3D Touch was a project that took "multi, multi, multi years" and was "unbelievably hard" to implement.
These comments may have been made to suggest that the competition couldn't easily replicate 3D Touch, but it seems that Apple's technological "moat" vis-a-vis 3D Touch isn't as wide as some might have thought.
Indeed, a couple of months ago, chipmaker Synaptics (NASDAQ:SYNA) announced its own 3D Touch-like solution, branded ClearPad 3700, that it plans to market to various smartphone vendors. Given that Synaptics works very closely with major smartphone vendors, such as Samsung, it wouldn't surprise me a bit to see that Samsung's 3D Touch-like implementation is based on Synaptics' solution.
What does this mean for Apple?
Although the Galaxy S7 is probably the most direct competition to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in the high end of the smartphone market -- which is why investors might focus on the S7 as the major "threat" to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus -- the real "problem" for Apple is that this technology will soon become ubiquitous in the world of Android phones.
I don't just mean flagship devices, either; it probably won't be too long before even good mid-range Android devices from a wide variety of vendors implementing this technology will be available in the marketplace.
Obviously, this isn't really great news for Apple, as it needs to keep persuading people to buy its (relatively) expensive flagships rather than choose lower-cost alternatives.
That being said, it's not necessarily doom and gloom either. What the impending commoditization of 3D Touch-like functionality means is that Apple will need to increase the rate at which it introduces new, innovative features.
Can Apple follow 3D Touch up with something even better?
To keep a technological and feature lead over the competition, Apple is going to need to introduce yet another "major" feature with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.
There have been numerous rumors as to what the company has in store for its next-generation iPhone, but there's not been much in the way of concrete details, aside from the fact that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus will be thinner than their predecessors and that the 7 Plus will have an additional gigabyte of memory over the vanilla iPhone 7.
I suspect that Apple is keeping a very tight lid on the features that its next-generation iPhone will have. Apple typically does so for both competitive reasons -- the more the competition knows ahead of time, the quicker they can copy -- and to avoid making obsolete the products it's currently trying to sell.
That said, one report suggested that the company is toying with adding "multi-3D touch," allowing for the screen to detect pressure from multiple fingers simultaneously. This seems plausible, although before putting too much faith into it, I'd like to see confirmation from multiple sources, particularly one with a good track record such as KGI Securities' Ming-Chi Kuo.
My guess is that the public will know roughly what to expect from the next-generation iPhone once mass production of the components intended for the devices is in full swing, probably around March or April.