The fingerprint scanner: Apple's Ace for the next iPhone?

Chase Bonar
 from Winter Springs, FL
Published: April 14, 2013

Rumors of the iPhone 5's successor are ramping up to unprecedented levels and a new job posting by Apple only adds fuel to the fire. Apple listed a job posting for a software engineer to join its Melbourne Design Centre team in Florida, the location of AuthenTec, a security company purchased by Apple last year. Apple has long been interested in increased security, and this job posting alludes to a fingerprint sensor possibly coming to play in future Apple products, including the iPhone.

Apple's interest in AuthenTec is firmly grounded. AuthenTec was quietly acquired for $365 million last year, but not much has come out of the acquisition yet. However, upon acquisition Apple directed AuthenTec to focus solely on fingerprint sensing and identity management, two plausible defenses against unauthorized users of a gadget, and the implications in mobile are paramount.

According to Patently Apple, Apple recently acquired trademarks for "AuthenTec" and "KeepSafe." The idea that these two words could play a role in a future iteration of Apple's portfolio of marketable terms is almost set in stone. These phrases even align with the KeepSafe home page on an old AuthenTec website which could shed light on a possible feature of iOS 7. 

KeepSafe is described as "an additional fingerprint enabled software application purchased from AuthenTec Store. KeepSafe allows you to encrypt your files in a  protected folder. The folder can be shown on your Desktop or in Computer. This folder will not be visible for other users sharing the computer."

Suffice it to say, Apple is far from the bleeding edge of security if the Cupertino company indeed decides to put a fingerprint sensor on the next iPhone. This sort of technology has already been implemented in PC's without much headway. A fingerprint scanner feature would clearly set it apart from competitors in mobile, but it would have some convincing to do as a feature (see the Motorola Atrix as proof).

A fingerprint sensor is unlikely to add value in daily practice for the average consumer. If Apple aims fingerprint security as the next iPhone's competitive advantage, it would be harder to justify the necessity of it. Then again, what do we really need that we already have? Apple's iOS already offers passcode protection and though a four digit code is far from the ultimate in security, iOS could easily require more digits. A fingerprint scanner seems a little "ahead of the curve" in the sense that it assumes our digital information is actually important and that we actually want to protect it, but it would be a first for Apple, so they might be able to convince some consumers they actually need it.

On the contrary, there are clear advantages in authorizing identified users as warranted to use a device especially in the field of E-Commerce. The idea that a fingerprint scan accompanied by a credit card number is a welcome line of defense which would greatly influence identity verification in online shopping. I will admit that fraudulent purchases online is an area of promise for a fingerprint scanner, but I don't see Apple pitching online purchases as a requirement of a future iPhone. With NFC out of the picture, the idea that an iPhone for contactless payments seems more of a dream than a reality. To top it off, an iPhone would have an even tougher time implementing a fingerprint scanner without vendor buy-in since the infrastructure for mobile payments is still in its infancy and has yet to show the growth NFC technology requires for wide acceptance.

There's no doubt that smartphones are a potential security nightmare if sensitive information is on-board. In business, I believe a fingerprint sensor could merit true value in preventing confidential information from passing to the wrong hands. Such a feature is plausible for Apple to capitalize on since the iPhone has become commonplace in businesses.

If a smartphone had the ability to only allow one user to gain complete access to the home screen, the iPhone holds a strong chance of being one of the most secure smartphones available. This could be an attractive feature of a future iPhone, but I think it will have to accompany a strong catalyst to attract consumer attention. While NFC and mobile payments seem like the strongest beneficiaries of a fingerprint scanner, Apple would need to highlight their mobile payment system as a true differentiator compared to what other smartphones already offer. This is a feat an iPhone would behoove to market extremely carefully since NFC and mobile payments are not new technologies in any sense.

The critical takeaway of a smartphone with a fingerprint sensor is in what justifies the need for it, and as we approach an era of increased reliance on the cloud and safe-guarded data, an iPhone with a fingerprint scanner need only convince consumers they need it, and they need it now, for it to be successful.

What are your thoughts on an iPhone with a fingerprint scanner? Could it serve as the competitive advantage Apple needs to assert itself as innovative in the mobile market once again? Or is it a gimmick?

Image via Bwwstatic.