Apple’s still got its golden touch

iPhone 6S fixed 920

Remember the long lines outside the Apple Store last September? Here we go again, and nobody’s more surprised about it than me.

I had suspected that Wednesday’s unveiling of the company’s latest product upgrades would mark a turning point, the beginning of a long, slow slide in the company’s fortunes. No way would they generate as much excitement as last year’s launch of the iPhone 6. But no: Apple’s new devices should keep the company on top for at least another year and maybe more.

I can’t be absolutely certain till I get some hands-on time with the new products. But judging by Wednesday’s live rollout from San Francisco, the company’s elite-level iPad Pro will bring in enough bucks to compensate for fading sales at the lower end of the tablet computer market. As for the new iPhone 6s, I’d say it’s as big a step forward as last year’s iPhone 6 – perhaps bigger.

Of course, I’m not always right. For instance, I’d thought Wednesday’s big news was to be the new Apple TV video streaming device. Apple is not used to losing, but it’s getting clobbered in this market. According to research firm Parks Associates, Apple TV is only the fourth most popular video streaming device in US homes, trailing market leader Roku, Google’s Chromecast, and Amazon.com’s Fire TV.

So I was waiting for a big, dramatic upgrade. No such luck. Still, the new Apple TV delivers a lot for $149, including the ability to search for shows with your voice, using the Siri speech recognition system. You can find everything on Apple iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu, and the Internet streams offered by HBO and Showtime. And though Apple TV box doesn’t stream games over the Internet, it doubles as a video game console. It’ll even let you start a game app in your living room, then keep playing the same app in the bedroom on your iPad.

In all, not a bad upgrade. But it’s far too little to dislodge cheaper rival products like the $100 voice-controlled Roku or Google’s $35 Chromecast. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called Apple TV “a hobby” in 2010. Five years later, it still is.

But Apple’s dead serious about the iPad, a once-reliable cash cow that’s fallen on hard times. Research firm IDC Corp. of Framingham informs us that iPad sales fell nearly 15 percent in 2014, and another 21 percent in the first half of 2015. In fact, the entire tablet market has gone cold, as newbies opt for big-screen phones instead.

Lesser hardware makers are racing for the bottom of the market. Amazon.com is reportedly building a $50 tablet. But that’s not the Apple way. The company’s lavish new iPad Pro features a screen that’s just under 13 inches across, and armed with a massive processor that Apple claims is faster than you’ll find in most laptops. The Pro carries a starting price of $799, and can be ordered with a $99 battery-powered stylus for writing on the screen — a technology that Jobs famously loathed.

Sure, it’s pricey. But the success of Microsoft’s high-priced Surface Pro 3 tablet proves there’s a market there. And the profit margins should make up for falling sales of cheaper iPads. When Apple aims upmarket, Apple usually hits the bullseye.

And then there’s the new iPhone. It’s like digital heroin for Apple — the phone produces nearly two-thirds of its revenue, so until some new blockbuster comes along, Apple’s desperate to keep us buying them. I figured the game was up till I saw the demonstration of the new 3D Touch system on the iPhone 6s.

Apple’s figured out how to make a touchscreen respond to the amount of pressure you apply, and to how long you press it. Now touching the screen unleashes a host of powerful options. To take a selfie, just press and hold the photo icon, then tap the selfie option that pops up. Touch a name in your address book, and you’re offered the option to phone, text or e-mail him. Touch an address in an e-mail message, and it appears on a map. Release it and you’re back in e-mail.

Once again, Apple has invented something we didn’t know we wanted, and I think people will want it bad. And since the system uses specialized electronic hardware, rival phone makers like Samsung Corp. will be hard pressed to copy it. So those who lust for 3D Touch will be lining up outside Apple stores when the new phone goes on sale Sept. 25.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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