Apple announced a host of insignificant new iPhone features yesterday, including the bold use of plastic, wacky colors, 64-bit ARM chips and a higher-quality camera.
Don’t get me wrong. Each of these features is desirable to someone. But all of them are insignificant in that they won’t change how people use their phones. They won’t change human behavior or culture.
Apple’s announcement of its Touch ID fingerprint system, however, represents a monumental shift in how we use phones and what we’ll use them for.
Here’s why Touch ID is giant news and the beginning of something major.
Giving Apple the Finger
Touch ID features a 500 ppi fingerprint scanner built into the iPhone 5S’s Home button. It replaces the passcode to unlock the phone and the Apple ID password for buying stuff on iTunes.
Instead of “swiping,” you just press a finger to the button. The metal ring around the outside registers the presence of a body part, telling the inside to scan your finger. Each time you scan, you improve future accuracy by giving the system a more data on your unique fingerprint patterns.
Why Apple’s Fingerprint Will Succeed Where Others Failed
The idea that Apple can get millions of users to embrace fingerprint scanning sounds unlikely.
People don’t like fingerprint scanning, for three reasons.
First, fingerprint scanning is associated with criminality. For the most past century or so, people charged with crimes had their fingerprints on file somewhere and those never charged didn’t.
Second, we’re living in an age of privacy violation and mistrust, especially now in the wake of the NSA revelations. It’s one thing to feel that one’s emails are being read and phone calls recorded. But fingerprint data make us identifiable in an unknown future. Once those shadowy forces get hold of our fingerprints, they’ll have them forever and into an unknown, possibly dystopian future.
And third, fingerprints on phones is associated with failure and confusion.
Phones have had fingerprint sensors before. The first Motorola Atrix had one. (Motorola took that feature out of the Atrix 2 because hardly anybody used it.)
Toshiba launched its Portege G900 and G500 phones with fingerprint scanners.
Hitachi built one into their W51H phone for the Japanese market.
All these products used AuthenTec fingerprint readers (Apple acquired AuthenTec in July, 2012) and all of them failed in the market.
Historically, fingerprint readers have appeared only on blocky, ugly and obscure phones and installed in weird places, such as on the back of the handset, or under the screen on flip phones.
The readers themselves have been ugly, a slot with two pieces of visible metal across which you were supposed to drag a finger.
It’s purpose often seemed unclear — usually just to keep others from using your phone.
I think Apple will be able to overcome all of these concerns. By building fingerprint scanning into a mainstream product, Apple will nudge the association of fingerprint scanning away from its criminal association.
Also: Apple claims fingerprint scanning is all handled on the phone and never uploaded outside the phone.
It’s also true that, while it seems like everyone is freaked out about the NSA and other snoops, in fact people will eagerly risk privacy violation to gain convenience.
And finally, Apple’s implementation of fingerprint scanning is actually visually appealing (a smooth sapphire glass case instead of a weird metal slot) and it’s place on the Home button where iPhone users are already used to placing their fingers. No major change in behavior is being asked for.
And its initial purposes are very clear. Apple’s proposition is to eliminate the minor but constant inconveniences of entering the passcode to access the phone and the password to download apps. Almost every 5S user will take advantage of the password feature, eventually representing dozens, then hundreds of millions of users. This will dramatically increase the number of people who have used fingerprint readers on phones by several orders of magnitude and making that technology acceptable on other smartphone platforms as well.
Note that other companies are already working on building more fingerprint readers into phones. For example, the upcoming giant-screen HTC Max phone is rumored to have a fingerprint scanner as well.
And other companies are also working on ways to get rid of the passcode, for example, the Moto X’s ability to bypass the passcode near user-designated “trusted” Bluetooth devices and also when placed near its NFC Skip device.
What the Fingerprint Reader Will Really Be Used For
Bypassing passcodes and passwords will be popular, but by itself not significant. The true significance lies in what comes next.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Fast forward a couple years, and let’s say 200 million people are using Touch ID. What then?
I predict that Apple will roll out a program that can be envisioned as a cross between social network sign-in programs and password utilities like LastPass. Whether you’re using iPhone, iPad or Mac, you’ll be able to log into participating sites by touching your phone (the phone will relay the authentication via Bluetooth to other devices).
I also believe Apple plans to use your Apple ID credit card and Touch ID authentication to enable payments on other sites. Say you’re on the J. Peterman catalog web site and want to buy a Paris Tough Guy Sweater. Instead of “registering,” filling out your credit card details, billing address and other annoying details, you’ll simply authenticate via Touch ID. The transaction will go through. Your iTunes credit card will be billed. And Apple will get a cut of the transaction.
I believe Apple will even roll this model into brick-and-mortar stores. Instead of NFC, Apple will more likely use Bluetooth Low Energy(BLE), the wireless technology also known as Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth 4.0.
Apple hinted at the previous iOS 7 announcement at their development conference a program called iBeacons, which are Bluetooth stations that stores can place all over to track and communicate with iPhone-carrying customers as they wander through the isles.
While iBeacons may zap contextual information to customers, they may also facilitate transactions. Instead of lining up for the cash register, for example, a customer might make the transaction like it was an online transaction, using Touch ID on the phone to pay, then just walk out of the store with the items.
The store alarms won’t go off because the iBeacons system will recognized the Touch ID-authenticated customer who has purchased the RFID-tagged items they’re carrying.
Apple’s Touch ID system won’t be super secure. It will, however, be far more secure and far more convenient than today’s passwords and credit cards.
I believe Touch ID and the fingerprint systems that other handset and mobile OS makers come up with, followed by all kinds of online and offline programs and initiatives that exploit ubiquitous fingerprint ID in mobile devices, will transform how authentication, ID and transactions are handled.
Apple is in a unique position to bring this change about, and it looks like they’re off to a very strong start.
By starting small — one of its handset lines and two simple applications (passcode and iTunes password), Apple is presenting something scary and ugly as something friendly and easy.
That combination will get millions of people to use it, and in doing so drive a mainstream change in general human behavior.
In other words, Apple is changing the world again, and in a way that will provide massive financial benefits to the company and small improvements in the convenience of everyday transactions to millions of people.
And that’s way more significant than a pink plastic iPhone.