Ever since Apple introduced the world to its Face ID facial recognition system with the launch of its iPhone X last autumn, there have been rumors and speculation that Face ID would quickly become Apple’s primary biometric authentication system, at least on the iPhone. And last week, Apple confirmed those rumors, unveiling three new iPhones, all of which feature an enhanced Face ID system, and none featuring the Touch ID fingerprint scanning system of Apple’s previous iPhone devices.
What’s the Big Deal?
Why does Apple’s pivot to Face ID matter? To find the answer, one needs only to look at the history of Touch ID. Apple introduced its fingerprint recognition system back in 2013, and while fingerprint scanning technology was not new at the time, it had never been featured in such a high-profile consumer device. All of sudden, mainstream consumers were getting their hands on a phone that would allow them to use this technology everyday, offering them a more convenient way of unlocking their devices and, later, signing into apps and making purchases.
Apple’s competitors were quick to follow. While Apple’s premium phones have always skewed toward the luxury end of the market, and would therefore be restricted to an affluent minority of smartphone users, its brand has nevertheless – or perhaps for that very reason – been tremendously influential in shaping consumer preferences across the price spectrum. So while Samsung lost little time in bringing fingerprint scanning to its own premium phones, companies offering mid-range devices weren’t far behind either. Today, fingerprint sensors are pretty much standard features on premium and mid-range smartphones, with much of the credit going to Apple’s pioneering efforts.
Now, Apple has made a definitive switch to facial recognition. All of its new iPhones have Face ID, and none have Touch ID – not even the budget model. So if the company is still in a position to shape the market as it was in 2013, that could mean a big, industry-wide shift away from fingerprint sensors and toward face scanning.
The Competition Responds
To a considerable extent, the shift is already underway. Samsung has been making facial recognition a bigger part of its own devices’ authentication security over the past year, and is rumored to be developing a 3D facial recognition system for its forthcoming Galaxy S10 smartphone, anticipated to launch next year. A number of other device makers have embraced 2D facial recognition software as a quick and cost-effective means of bringing Face Unlock systems to their own devices, albeit a less secure kind than the infrared face mapping system of the iPhone X. And a recent partnership between some of China’s biggest components suppliers and a major AI firm is poised to bring sophisticated 3D face scanning to future Android smartphones.
There is, however, one big difference between Apple’s launch of Face ID and its launch of Touch ID: The mobile biometrics market has evolved. Indeed, it barely existed when Touch ID was launched. But as of last autumn, when the iPhone X was unveiled, it encompassed a pretty substantial range of modalities, and Apple’s arch-rival Samsung was already trying to differentiate itself from Apple with its embrace of iris scanning technology, in addition to fingerprint scanning. Touch ID was the first to show up in an empty room, but Face ID has arrived at a crowded party.
Mono-modality Or Multi-modality?
In other words, it may be that the big question now is really whether mono-modality can remain the dominant approach. Apple has always used just one biometric system for authentication – first fingerprint scanning, and now face scanning. But many of its competitors have sought to combine multiple systems together into one device, and security experts tend to agree that support for more modalities is preferable to mono-modality.
Meanwhile, some smartphone makers started to pioneer in-display fingerprint scanning in new devices launched this year – technology that can work alongside facial and iris scanning, with no need to infringe on large screen space with dedicated home buttons. This technology could offer these brands a competitive edge, or at least a means of differentiating themselves from Apple, and that could prevent Face ID from shaping the mobile biometrics market in the same way that Touch ID did.
That having been said, Face ID has already had a big impact on the industry, and Apple’s definitive switch to the system is only going to add further reverberations. But with the rest of the mobile biometrics market already hard at work on a wide range of Face ID alternatives, Apple isn’t necessarily going to be the one who decides where things go from here.