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Perhaps Apple Inc.'s 3D Touch Isn't So Easily Imitated

By Ashraf Eassa - Feb 24, 2016 at 9:30AM

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New Android flagships lack the main feature of Apple's iPhone 6s/6s Plus.

Back in late 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) next-generation flagship smartphone -- dubbed the Galaxy S7 -- would pack functionality similar to 3D Touch, first introduced in a mass-market smartphone by Apple (AAPL 0.96%). The reported cited "sources familiar with the matter."

It would seem, however, that those sources were not so well informed.

On Feb. 21, Samsung formally unveiled the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge. The phones include a host of under-the-hood improvements, but one feature that was conspicuously absent was a Samsung-designed clone of Apple's 3D Touch.

Although Samsung may have excluded this technology for cost reasons (after all, the company's phones tend to be sold at discounts not too long after launch), I suspect that Apple's song and dance about the difficulty of implementing this technology may, indeed, have merit.

What Apple has said about the technology
In an interview with Bloomberg, Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive said that 3D Touch is a technology that the company worked on "for a long time -- multi, multi years."

Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, told Bloomberg that the "hardware to build a display that does what [3D Touch] does is unbelievably hard."

Two top-tier flagships launched at MWC 2016 don't have it
To date, I am not aware of any major Android flagship phones that feature functionality equivalent to what Apple dubs 3D Touch. Chinese smartphone vendor Huawei actually tried to "upstage" Apple by showing off a variant of its Mate S smartphone implementing what it calls "Force Touch."

Now, although headlines following this demonstration included things such as:

  • "Huawei brings Force Touch to its phones before Apple" (The Verge); and
  • "Huawei Beats Apple to Force Touch on Phones"

The fine print that these headlines didn't emphasize is that the Force Touch functionality would be limited to a single halo model sold in select regions. It's not even clear whether such devices ever actually made it into the hands of paying customers.

Samsung's new flagships don't have the feature, nor does LG's freshly announced flagship, the LG G5. Those are likely to be the two most well-known flagship devices from two quite prominent mobile competitors in a very fierce market for flagship Android devices.

If they couldn't get this technology implemented into their latest flagships -- which are launching about six months after Apple launched the iPhone 6s/6s Plus -- then it would seem that there may indeed be something to Apple's bold claims of technical difficulty.

Apple's just getting started
Apple's vast success in cornering the premium portion of the smartphone market should allow it to invest substantially in new, potentially game-changing technologies. Indeed, its R&D budget has skyrocketed to a nearly $10 billion/year run rate. And, given its focus on a fairly narrow set of products, each of its product lines -- particularly iPhone -- should enjoy all of the benefits that come with a virtually limitless budget.

I believe that 3D Touch merely represents the beginning of what is likely to be a very robust pipeline of innovations from the iDevice maker. There are some areas in which competitors still lead (Apple's iPhone 6s/6s Plus displays are not class leading, nor are the phones' camera subsystems), but over time, I expect that Apple will close the gaps where needed and continue to innovate in terms of new technologies and user experiences in ways that its competitors may eventually be unable to match.

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