Thanks to Apple, the fingerprint ID reader revolution has been both launched and delayed.
Fingerprint readers built into smartphones are filled with promise and potential, as well as peril. By themselves, they're worthless. The true value in biometric ID is always in the applications, and smartphones are uniquely suited to achieving this value.
Until recently, however, this was a moot point. Fingerprint readers weren't common enough on phones to bother.
And that's why I'm writing this column: Mobile World Congress is next week, and the event will represent a tipping point in the existence of fingerprint readers in phones.
Apple shakes the industry to its core
Blame Apple. And praise it, too.
Fingerprint readers in smartphones have existed for years. When Motorola introduced its Atrix 4G phone four years ago, hardly anybody bought it for the built-in fingerprint scanner. Well, hardly anybody bought it for any reason.
Since then, a few phone makers here and there introduced phones with fingerprint scanners, and nobody cared.
Then Apple did their thing, and changed the industry again.
The iPhone 5S shipped in September 2013, and it had a fingerprint reader built into the home button. Covered by sapphire glass, the sensor is part of Apple's biometric feature called Touch ID.
The combination of the quality of the sensor overall, the location and design of the sensor, the software that processes Touch ID and the way Apple processes, encrypts and stores biometric and other personal data made using Touch ID easily the best experience for using a fingerprint reader ever.
For example, to use Apple Pay to buy something at the store, the user simply holds the phone so that a thumb is covering the home button, then taps the phone on the checkout NFC reader, and payment is processed instantly. Users don't even have press the button, let alone swipe a finger across a slit-style fingerprint scanner used by most competitors.
You would think that the ultra convenience of Touch ID (and Apple Pay) wouldn't make the difference between mainstreaming or not mainstreaming fingerprint scanning on phones, but you'd be wrong.
There was a time when the entire industry was poised to embrace the same fingerprint scanner technology used by Apple's Touch ID, simply because its superiority was clear. The mobile fingerprint revolution would have already happened.
Former Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside let slip recently that the dimple on the back of the Nexus 6 phone, which was made by Motorola and now has the Motorola logo in the crater, was originally designed into the handset as the location for a Touch ID-like sensor, using the same technology and the same company that makes Apple's reader.
That company is AuthenTec. And Apple wrecked other handset makers’ plans in 2012 by buying the company for $356 million.
That acquisition hit the smartphone industry in three ways. First, it gave Apple assured and indefinite access to the best handset fingerprint reader by far, as well as the engineers and designers who developed it.
Second, the AuthenTec system was part of Apple's overall Touch ID system, which proved to be the best currently available way to process fingerprint ID on smartphones. Touch ID provided a direction and a blueprint for the industry about what users would embrace.
Third, it deprived the rest of the industry that same technology.
Woodside said that the AuthenTec reader was so far ahead of alternatives that they didn't even bother to replace it in the Nexus 6 with another company's technology–they just went without.
That's why Motorola's famous but mean-spirited tweet after Apple launched the iPhone 5S was so disingenuous–the company tried multiple times to get what Apple got. To suggest that Apple's Touch ID was misguided was itself misguided in the extreme.
In a nutshell, Apple schooled the industry in how to make a strategic acquisition, how to leverage that acquisition into an overall solution that nobody else can match and then (with iOS 8) how to open up that solution to third-party app developers.
Apple gave itself a huge lead, and in doing so a huge advantage.
It won't last.
The industry strikes back!
The many companies making fingerprint sensors have "sensed" a huge opportunity in the market with Apple's combined acquisition of AuthenTec, followed by the success of Touch ID.
Apple simultaneously mainstreamed their category of product, while simultaneously taking the No. 1 competitor off the table for the vast majority of handset makers.
As a result, they has been scrambling to develop Touch-ID quality parts, and the smartphone companies have been snapping them up.
China, for example, is awash in new fingerprint sensors based on the AuthenTec approach to zero-swiping fingerprint sensing.
I'm headed off to Barcelona to cover the Mobile World Congress show. And in the world of smartphones, I expect the biggest trend to be the total ubiquity of, as well as serious innovation in, smartphone fingerprint sensors.
I expect Samsung and HTC to offer new thinking in fingerprint sensors, and every single one of the Chinese upstarts as well–Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Lenovo and all the rest.
But here's why this matters: It's time for everyone to get very serious about support for fingerprint ID in smartphones on the app front.
There are so many big problems that fingerprint scanning in mobile devices can solve. The passwords problem, for starters. Building security for another.
But the thing about apps that everyone needs to keep in mind is that nobody can predict what value is unlocked when thousands of developers work at it.
And that's why ubiquity is key. Now that fingerprint readers are becoming standard in higher end phones, it's time to start developing with the assumption that biometric ID is just going to be there.
It's time to get serious about mobile fingerprint apps.