Credit: Miloš Toman
According to a report from generally reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via 9to5Mac), Apple is not only planning on bringing back the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, but it’s looking to include it as an addition to Face ID, rather than a replacement for it.
Prior to the release of the iPhone X in 2017 — which surprised many with its switch to Face ID — a lot of folks expected Apple would build a fingerprint reader into the iPhone display for that year’s model; in fact Apple was even reported to be testing an iPhone 8 prototype with an in-display Touch ID sensor. Although this never saw the light of day, it provided early indications that Apple had been working in this direction, although Kuo himself later dismissed this idea — at least in terms of more imminent iPhone lineups.
Earlier this year, however, a newly-discovered patent revealed that Apple could be working on another way to do this, using acoustic fingerprint technology, or essentially sound sensors to map out a user’s fingerprints. Combined with supply chain reports suggesting Apple was still trying to lock down fingerprint sensors, this kicked off a new round of speculation that an iPhone with in-display Touch ID could again be on its way — possibly as a more affordable model for sale in China or a lower-end model in Apple’s main iPhone lineup, since the components used to support Face ID are estimated by many analysts to be a big part of what is driving up the price of Apple’s iPhones.
But Why Not Do Both?
Most of the speculation around future iPhones with in-display Touch ID sensors, however, tended to see it as being mutually exclusive to Face ID. Some believed Apple might abandon Face ID entirely in favour of a wholesale return to Touch ID, while others speculated that Apple would create a budget lineup of iPhones without TrueDepth cameras, such as a successor to the iPhone SE, or something like the rumoured iPhone XE.
However, as Kuo points out, there’s absolutely no reason the two technologies can’t peacefully co-exist. In fact, he not only sees facial recognition and fingerprint recognition as complementary, but believes Apple can only gain from unifying the experiences and providing users with both options.
As anybody who has ever used both Face ID and Touch ID can attest to, there are situations in which Touch ID is still a better option. Making payments with Apple Pay comes to mind as an obvious example — it’s much more natural to wave your iPhone near a contactless payment terminal without having to actually look at it first to unlock it — and then there are situations where objects such as glasses, scarves, and ski goggles make the use of Face ID less practical.
On the flip side, however, Face ID is still a solid technology that’s also very useful in a lot of situations. There’s also far more to Apple’s TrueDepth camera than just facial recognition, so unless Apple plans to remove that component entirely, there aren’t any cost savings to be found solely by ditching Face ID.
Challenges Remain, But Apple Can Solve Them
Of course, Apple has a long habit of not introducing technology until it’s sure that it can do it well. Even facial recognition was around for years before Apple came along with Face ID, but older systems were far more of a novelty, able to be easily fooled with a photograph, as opposed to Apple’s actual digital face mapping technology.
Similarly, in-display fingerprint readers have started to appear on competing Android phones, but there are still technical hurdles to deal with, such as power consumption, reliability, accuracy, and of course the size of components and ability to manufacture them properly at scale. All of these are likely factors that Apple faced when exploring the idea two to three years ago.
However, Kuo expects that Apple will be able to address these challenges in the next 18 months, allowing the 2021 iPhone to include a high-quality in-display fingerprint sensor that will be up to the company’s standards.
The Apple Watch Could Get It Too
Somewhat parenthetically, Kuo also speculated that this technology could come to a future model of the Apple Watch, saying that it’s far more likely than putting a Face ID facial recognition camera in the wearable device. However, Kuo stopped short of actually saying whether he thinks Apple is actually working on that.
Currently, the Apple Watch relies on “Wrist Detection” for its security, which immediately locks the Apple Watch with a passcode as soon as it’s removed from the owner’s wrist. This provides a reasonable tradeoff for a device that contains little to no personal data; the most at-risk items on an Apple Watch are payments cards used for Apple Pay, which requires Wrist Detection to be enabled, and are easily revoked or cancelled in the event that an Apple Watch is lost or stolen.
It’s Still Just An Educated Guess
It’s worth adding, however, that as 9to5Mac points out in a follow-up article, this report is “pure speculation” on the part of Ming-Chi Kuo. While the very reputable analyst usually cites supply chain sources as evidence for his predictions, he’s made it very clear that this one is based solely on his own logic, rather than any hard information that he’s seen.
However, Kuo has a solid — although certainly not perfect — track record when it comes to predicting what Apple is up to, and he’s been watching Apple much more closely, and for a much longer time, than most other analysts, so his educated guesses have a pretty high chance of being right, and considering the new evidence that Apple is still working on in-display Touch ID sensors, this also seems by far to be the most logical approach for Apple to take.