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Early reactions to Apple’s fingerprint-enabled iPhone 5S


Let’s all give ourselves a big pat on the back. The rumors were true – Apple’s newest iPhone was unveiled today with a fingerprint sensor.

Specifically, the tech giant showed off two fancy new iPhones – the 5C and the 5S. The 5C is a cheaper, plastic version, which does not include the fingerprint sensor and comes in a variety of bright colors. The 5S, on the other hand, sports a fingerprint sensor embedded in the home button and uses what the company is calling Touch ID to authenticate users. The 5S comes with metallic finishes and has a body made of metal and glass.

iphone 5S finishes

To some in the biometrics space, this move by Apple could be seen as a tipping point of adoption, though that really has yet to be seen.  Apple has a reputation for influencing the market and ultimately, consumers. Believe it or not, touchscreen smartphones before the iPhone weren’t very popular. Many believe the same could be said for fingerprint sensors in consumer devices, though not everyone is in agreement.

“Apple’s decision to include authentication with the iPhone is a good dose of rocket fuel for the industry. Though any authentication technology unsupported by standards may take years, if ever, to achieve widespread market penetration,” Michael Barrett, president of the FIDO Alliance said today. “The marketplace seeks authentication capabilities that span computer, smartphone, and physical access authentication and federated identity applications. Open industry standards, such as FIDO authentication specifications, are required before we can achieve industry-wide adoption of strong authentication across all platforms.”

A few smartphones have already been launched – particularly in Asian markets – which include fingerprint sensors, though the North American market has so far been relatively unexposed to this technology.

“It’s estimated that Apple iOS penetration is only 17% of the total market, while PC and laptop fingerprint sensor (fps) penetration is at about 20% now, and has been thereabouts for years. Yet, though the PC market is provisioned, and now so is the Apple iPhone market, widespread penetration cannot and will not occur without open standards that make authentication methods interoperable. That’s why the industry formed the FIDO Alliance, and that is how the industry as a whole will achieve widespread adoption of strong authentication.”

iphone 5sApple shouldn’t get too comfortable in its position cornering this market in North America, because it is more than likely we will see many more smartphones with fingerprint sensors enter the space this year. Also, some initial reactions online suggest consumers think these are pricey phones ($549 for a 16GB 5C and $649 for the 16GB 5S. The 32GB and 64GB 5S will cost even more). In my opinion, this leaves room for some serious Android competition and iPhone sales could suffer, with the exception of those that come from overnight line-sitting early adopters.

In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of what Apple has told us so far about the iPhone 5S fingerprint sensor:

The Touch ID capacitive sensor is 170 microns thin, sports 500 ppi resolution, scans sub-epidermal layers and has a 360-degree readability capability. The sensor is built into the home button, can unlock the phone and make iTunes purchases. Using an adaptive system, the company says its sensor gets better at reading prints the more it’s used. It also includes an embedded sapphire crystal, which will act as a lens to focus the sensor on fingerprints.  Finally, fingerprint data will be encrypted in the iPhones new A7 chip, won’t be accessible by software or stored on Apple’s servers and won’t be backed up to iCloud. This last bit has also proven to be a popular talking point online.

In terms of the Touch ID being an adaptive sensor, there is the potential that this could lead to some early false-positives for users, which could affect consumer perceptions. Reported previously, Battelle recently designed a similar adaptive app for the Leap Motion controller and two security researchers at Malwarebytes inadvertently spoofed the system.

Whether this is a tipping point or not for consumer biometrics, timing and pricing will mean everything for biometric-enabled smartphones and consumer adoption is worth watching closely with this unit.

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