Apple has a big problem. With the home key expected to become a virtual on-screen button in the upcoming iPhone, Apple needs to address biometric identification without the traditional Touch ID sensor. As I see it there are three notable options that Tim Cook and his team can choose from and none of them are without fault.
The first is the one that has been expected for most of 2017, to retain the whole Touch ID system but embed the Touch ID sensor under the touchscreen glass. With the move to a virtual home button allowing the screen to dominate the front of the device, this would keep the Touch ID sensor in the same physical place as previous iPhones (reducing the cognitive change) while advancing the technology and move Apple further along the ‘no buttons or ports in the chassis’ route.
Apple is not the only manufacturer which has been looking at an under-glass fingerprint sensor. Samsung has been working on a similar solution for the Galaxy Note 8, although current indications are that it has been unsuccessful and has resorted to placing the sensor on the rear of the phablet next to the camera lens.
Reports on the iPhone indicate that Apple has a working solution but the production yield is lower than hoped for.
The second choice is probably the most speculative. Recent leaks of the iPhone 8 design have suggested that the power button has been enlarged. That’s a curious choice. While it could be a change in style to go along with the new curved glass display and rear cover, a larger power button could feature a Touch ID sensor, echoing Sony’s approach with its Android-powered Xperia handsets.
If Apple was having issues with the under-glass sensor but needs to retain Touch ID, then this would be the option that would provide only a small level of disruption thanks to its use of existing technology paired with the current Touch ID hooks in iOS for first- and third-party applications.
The third option of replacing Touch ID has been talked up in Apple circles over the last few weeks. This would see Tim Cook and his team drop the use of Touch ID completely in the iPhone 8 and rely on forward facing cameras and sensors to recognize an authorized face. While facial recognition is the most ‘gee-whizz’ option and certainly one that could be easier to use, it’s going to need to be just as accurate and speedy as Touch ID is today.
It will need to contend with a wide range of difficult conditions (including different lighting and atmospheric conditions that change the contours and colors on a user’s face) and to deal with it in such a way that it feels easier and faster than Touch ID. Every time Facial ID fails it’s going to make acceptance that little bit harder.
I’m discounting the idea of Apple dropping biometric recognition from the new iPhone handset, and I’m also discounting a standalone physical Touch ID sensor gracing the front of the iPhone 8 (because that would undermine the effort to go for an ‘almost all screen’ look.
I’m tempted to put money on Apple sticking with the under-glass fingerprint reader. It’s a natural next step after the moveable home button was replaced with a pressure sensitive ‘area’ on last year’s iPhone 7, it fits with user expectations, and it’s something the opposition does not have. The reports of lower yields on the part also ties in with the late arrival of the iPhone 8. Rather than a trickle of handsets and lots of individuals disappointed that ‘they did not get one’, everyone has to wait, the iPhone 8’s arrival will be another media event and it can go from ‘zero’ to ‘old every where.’
It also would not come as a surprise to me that Apple is working on a ‘back-up’ identification system using facial recognition. If the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of sensors and extra peripherals on its smartphones, losing the fingerprint sensor in place of improved forward facing sensors that can be used for multiple purposes is a better long-term bet for Apple.
But both of these answers are facing difficulties that require addressing in hardware. That means the judgment on which hardware to install inside the iPhone 8 has already been made. There is space for more forward facing sensors, although the issues around specific recognition in software are huge. Apple has patents for under-glass fingerprint readers and the technology has been shown, but we don’t know if this is ready for mass-production yet.
Until then, all that we can be relatively sure about is the power button is much bigger than previous models.