How did Apple succeed in fingerprint technology where others have failed?

…it's not rampant technology for technology’s sake. Every single component, every process has been considered and measured to make sure it is truly useful…- Jony Ive

Innovation Does Not Always Mean Being First

Innovation is not just about the technology, it is how this technology is used and how it changes how we use devices; it transcends all prior innovations up to that point. Innovation builds on the greatness of the past, but this does not mean innovation is just a big incremental leap, there are more elements.

Some of the most informed technology observers, writers and notable Apple fans began to question if Apple could continue to innovate. They even began suggesting that the new Gold iPhone 5s option would be a failure before it even came to market. This is not about how wrong they were, it is about how easy it is to lose perspective of how truly innovative companies build truly innovative products. Sometimes it seems to be happening in slow motion, appearing like nothing is really happening.

So much of what Apple has done since the Apple I, has been a design philosophy of assimilating great technology in Apple time. This means they are usually not the first to bring technology to the market, but perhaps the first to pull together all of the elements to make a desirable product that includes the technology. From the Integrated Woz Machine to the new Touch ID, none of the foundational technology is new. However—with historical insight—it will eventually be deemed as innovative. Of course, just like any company, Apple has made some mistakes with technology; just not very often, and certainly not lately.

When I saw the first Apple patent applications for mobile devices back before there was an iPhone, I knew that Apple would take a very long time before they introduced a product with a fingerprint scanner. Once the iPhone hit the market Apple filed dozens of direct and indirect patents relating to this technology. This was a journey that spans more than seven years, as along the way Apple acquired the most active companies developing fingerprint scanner technology.

The Motorola Atrix And The Dawn Of Smartphone Fingerprint Scanners

Motorola invented the foundational technologies we all use today with cellular communications. Not only did they invent technology, they also have innovated countless times since Paul Galvin started the company in 1928. There is no doubt that Motorola has not only played a very important part in the connected and wireless world we see today, but that world simply would not have existed if Motorola had not innovated to the level they have. They were first, and they innovated a lot.

Fingerprint scanners on cellular phones go back to a very limited use device built in the 1980s. The most recent example is the Motorola Atrix family of smartphones. Developed in early 2010 under code name Olympus, the Atrix was to be an Android-based smartphone with a dizzying array of features. The Atrix even featured a full screen and keyboard docking system that many thought would make the smartphone a laptop replacement. The fingerprint scanner was the cherry on top of this multi layered stack of technologies. The problem, however, was that the technology employed in the Atrix’s fingerprint scanner was less than adequate and suffered from ineffective recognition that would frustrate users.

Motorola’s Atrix was well received when it was announced at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show on January 5, 2011. But Atrix failed to capture the imagination and the marketshare of smartphones. Even though many users liked the integrated fingerprint scanner on the top rear edge of the device, it was not very accurate and not really very useful. The product now is virtually obsolete, as there have been no official upgrades from the old version of Android that powers the device. Thus the Atrix has met the unceremonious end of life that so many great ideas face in the marketplace.

A Study Of Two Different Approaches

Apple has brought the use cases for fingerprint technology to the forefront with Touch ID. This technology presents a great opportunity to examine just how divergent Apple’s approach to product development is, in comparison to just about every other technology company. Apple’s approach has often been problematic for knowledgeable technologists...and for good reason: they simply do not see what the big deal is from a technological perspective. And in most cases, they have been quite correct.

[caption id='attachment_1966' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Specimen of the fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5s.[/caption]

[caption id='attachment_1967' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Specimen of the fingerprint scanner on the Motorola Atrix.[/caption]

There are quite a number of reasons why the Motorola Atrix failed to captivate users and capture market share. I will address what I assert are the most important contrasting elements to what I am certain will be a paradigm changing and transformative technology. In many ways the approaches to product development used by Apple and Motorola are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. At this point I think it is obvious, but it was not nearly as obvious when Apple started on the journey that resulted in Touch ID, nor was it obvious when Motorola added a fingerprint scanner to a smartphone.

Touch vs. Swipe- Apple chose a technology that allows the user to touch a finger on the scanner, and this is not at all trivial. When one uses Touch ID the first time, it feels natural to just touch the scanner with the inside edge of the thumb holding the phone. Motorola’s scanner requires a finger to swipe over the head of the reader. The process is less than natural because of the way you must swipe the pad of the forefinger in a not-too-fast and not-too-slow action. Touch is the reason Touch ID got it’s name.

Front vs. Back- Apple chose to locate Touch ID front and center integrated into one of the most important areas of the iPhone, the Home button. This makes instant access and regular use of Touch ID quite simple. Motorola’s scanner is located in what seems to be a thoughtful location from an engineering perspective. However, from a user perspective there are several contortions necessary to be sure of a correct fingerprint swipe.

Any Finger vs. Just A Forefinger- Apple’s Touch ID allows for any and all fingers (or toes, if you are so inclined) to be used to activate the fingerprint scanner. Motorola’s technology primarily allows the right and/or left forefinger to be used. This is logical because of the way Motorola chose to position and orient the fingerprint scanner, however it severely limits the use cases for the system.

Multi Orientation vs. Single Orientation- Apple’s touch ID allows it to recognize fingerprints in any orientation around the scanner. Motorola’s fingerprint technology uses only a single orientation: a straight up and down swipe. There is no doubt that just this issue alone would frustrate most causal users to the point of disconnecting the feature.

Sapphire Lens vs. Plastic Lens- Apple chose one of the hardest translucent materials to be found, almost as hard as diamonds. This material selection was not a flamboyant afterthought, but a really deep understanding of the potential limits of scanning technology. Motorola elected to use a plastic-based sensor lens for the Artix. The lens of a fingerprint scanner is of paramount importance. Over time, the quality of each scan will degrade when materials less hard than Shappire is used. A smartphone will be exposed to dust, debris and oils from skin. This buildup will accumulate and cause recognition errors. More importantly, plastic—and even gorilla glass—will accumulate micro-scratches and whorl marks that will ultimately render the scanner useless.

Reinvention vs. Off The Shelf- Apple built all of the technology for Touch ID from the ground up, both internally and through the acquisition of AuthenTec. Every single element—as well as the way the elements are combined—is unique. Motorola selected an off-the-shelf part that was inexpensive, but also not very accurate. Ironically, at one point AuthenTec sourced the part. Apple’s technological achievement in Touch ID is based on building this subsystem from the start. Even to an untrained eye, one can detect a huge difference just visually:

[caption id='attachment_1968' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Specimen of the iPhone 5s fingerprint scanner sub system invented from the ground up.[/caption]

[caption id='attachment_1969' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Specimen of the Motorola Atrix fingerprint scanner subsystem that is basically a standard off-the-shelf part.[/caption]

Deep Security vs. Surface Security- Apple converged the security and encryption technology of the ARM A7 processor so that the fingerprint biometric data is held securely in the Secure Enclave of the A7 and can not leave the chip. Motorola just saved the biometric data in regular processor memory. This opened up the prospects of unauthorized use, as well as potential full identity reproduction of the user on other systems or devices.

Multiple Use Cases vs. Single Use Cases- Apple clearly has been thinking for almost a decade about biometrics and fingerprint technology. They have empirically studied all aspects of how this technology could inform deeper uses cases with in the hardware. Today, Touch ID is constrained to just two use cases, unlocking the iPhone and authorizing iTuens and App Store purchases. But this is an artificial limitation, and Apple will deeply integrate Touch ID into the very fabric of the OS. Motorola’s vision was limited to only unlocking the Atrix and had no deeper uses cases planned.

Apple Created A Name For The Fingerprint Scanner: Touch ID

We can also see a huge a dichotomy in the approaches both companies used to present the technology to the world. Apple has centered the marketing of the iPhone 5s around the fingerprint technology, and created a special name for it, Touch ID. In contrast, Motorola chose to present the fingerprint scanner as just one part of a very long list of features. This is apparent in the marketing videos below:


How The Windows In Our Homes Inform Security.

We all choose to make choices about security. We also know there is no such thing as 100% security. With the right conditions and the right amount of technology, anything will be unlocked. We live in homes that hold a great deal of our personal wealth, however we have access to the home that just a hard tap could defeat, we call this a window. We like windows for many reasons but they massively impact security. Even with alarms, the window is just inches away from our stuff. We accept this and we will ultimately accept that even the best fingerprint scanners will be circumvented. It will not be easy for 99% of us to circumvent, but it will be done.

Innovative Technology That Just Disappears

It is safe to conclude that Motorola saw the Atrix fingerprint scanner as little more than a security feature. Apple’s approach was dramatically different. Fingerprint-based security was viewed as a deep design element rather than as a technological appendage. We can see this visually in the way both companies present the fingerprint scanner to the user. In Motorola’s case one can feel that the scanner was grafted on to the design of the device, whereas Apple makes the technology disappear almost entirely. In fact, unless one was told there is a fingerprint scanner hidden below the Home button, it could be entirely taken as a Jony Ive desire to simplify and remove the Home button rectangle image.

[caption id='attachment_1970' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Example of how the fingerprint scanner is not obvious on the iPhone 5s.[/caption]

[caption id='attachment_1971' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Example of how the fingerprint scanner is very obvious on the Atrix.[/caption]

History And Public Statements

The fact that Motorola was one of the first companies to integrate fingerprint scanners into a smartphone should be a forward-looking accomplishment of which it can be proud, even if the product was not considered a success. However, it is surprising to me that Motorola made a Microsoft-like embarrassing statement yesterday. Although intended as glib, I predict that the statement will not prove to be one of the company’s finest moments:

[caption id='attachment_1972' align='aligncenter' width='300'] Example of a regrettable and cringeworthy tweet from a multi-billion dollar company.[/caption]

There Is Room For All Kinds Of Innovation

There is room for thousands of ideas, products and companies in what we currently call the mobile market. It will soon just be viewed as the computer market is today. Innovation does not always appear in the way Apple conjures up their products. It can come from a spectrum of philosophies. But the common element is that an empirical praxis forms the foundation. As Jony Ive pointed out, it is not just about the technology, but how truly useful the technology is.

Touch ID and the many use cases that will become apparent over the next few years will demonstrate why this technology truly forms a foundation for Apple’s future. You can certainly speculate where this will take all of us, but I think it is abundantly clear one of the next destinations for Apple is to make retail payments become a far richer and rewarding experience for both the merchant and the customer. Apple has had a long time to fine tune these experiences, and from the iTunes store to the Apple retail store experience you and I have seen just the start of the revolution.

We Vote With Our Wallets

As I write this we are just days after Apple shipped the iPhone 5s. Some may say it is premature to declare it a success, even with the longest Apple lines in history and the mania some people apparently have to acquire a gold-colored iPhone. I agree that it may be too early to tell. But I have watched this develop through Apple patent filings for quite sometime. I also spent the better part of a beautiful Saturday watching people become excited as they got their first try at Touch ID. The buzz always goes away, but you and I will never look at a smartphone the same way once we have used it.

Apple builds products using technology; they are not building products just to use new technology. The technology is a means to an ends. We can see that this philosophy of design can take almost a decade to begin to produce results. This vision and determination is one of the reasons Apple has become one of the most successful companies in the world. But in the end, none of this really matters. What matters is that you and I and the rest of us, directly or indirectly, have voted with our wallets, and not because we love Apple’s technology. We voted because we love what the products do to us, and do for us.

Why we care about all this @ Lets Talk Payments? Because Apple’s iphone 5s touch ID is important for the security industry in general and payments in particular