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Apple’s fingerprint scanner can do more than unlock your iPhone

The iPhone 5s was announced to great fanfare earlier this month, and while many reacted to the device by saying it is simply an incremental release, it has the potential to change the way we interact with mobile devices and objects in the real world thanks to one special feature — Touch ID.

A long rumored iPhone addition, Touch ID allows you to unlock the iPhone 5s as well as make purchases in iTunes using a fingerprint scanner built into the home button. It might seem like a simple idea on the surface, but the possibilities for innovation don’t stop at unlocking your phone. The only problem is Apple’s unwillingness to give developers access to the technology at the moment.

Developers look forward to laying their hands on Touch ID
It’s hoped that eventually Apple will allow API access to the new sensor so developers can use Touch ID in their applications. That would open the door to a plethora of new possibilities. The most likely scenario for developers, according to Consulting iOS Architect Conrad Stoll, is that Touch ID will be used as a “token-based authentication provider.” This method would allow the iPhone to function in a similar fashion to an OAuth server.

“When you want the user to confirm their identity to [the app] in order to make a transaction, you could ask their phone to verify that token,” Stoll explains. “Then the user could press to validate their fingerprint with Touch ID and, if that is successful, the phone could then tell that app that, yes, this is the correct user, and they have authenticated and you can now trust that it is them performing some action.”

One piece of the puzzle
Apple has a number of new technologies that, when pieced together, reveal a broader picture that will allow this strategy to work. The first of these components are devices called iBeacons. The company hasn’t talked in detail about their intentions for them, but we know plenty about what the devices do. iBeacons are tiny radios that you can put almost anywhere so that when an iPhone comes into range it detects the device and can estimate how far away they are from one another.

The second piece of the puzzle is AirDrop, which was announced as part of iOS 7. It allows the user to quickly receive files, pictures and other information from nearby devices. If you combine AirDrop and iBeacons, things start getting interesting. Retailers could use a combination of the technologies to drop a coupon in your Passbook when you come within a few feet of their store (which, of course, they would detect using an iBeacon) or they could wake up your phone and offer you a deal on the lock screen, much like this proof of concept.

The retail details
By combining iBeacon, AirDrop and Touch ID, there are more complex opportunities for both retailers and consumers. For cashiers, collecting customer email addresses has never been easier. Rather than hounding patrons at the register, retailers can prompt them to sign up for their e-newsletter with a free coupon through AirDrop, allowing them to opt-in by using their fingerprint to ship off their associated email address.

This could be taken a step further to mobile payments when iBeacons are able to detect more precise distances. Eventually, a small shop might be able to put an iBeacon underneath their cash register and detect when a customer is within one to two yards to allow for payment of goods.

Rather than rubbing their device on the terminal and then using a PIN for large purchases, which NFC requires, customers could receive an AirDrop request for payment, present their fingerprint and be on their way. Estimote, a company building iBeacons, is already working on a similar payment solution.

Why unlocking your phone is just the beginning
Lockitron, fresh off a successful Kickstarter campaign, allows iPhone owners to unlock the doorto their house simply by walking up to it with their iPhone in their pocket. A new generation version of the device could, in theory, add support for fingerprint authentication to unlock the door and allow you to register your family’s fingerprints as well.

This could be taken further if we imagine the future smarthouse. Once inside the home, your lights and thermostat could change to suit whoever unlocked the door as well as playing some of their favourite music over the speakers.

One could also imagine Touch ID being built into automobiles. With Apple’s recent foray into iOS compatible cars, the company could take that integration to the next level by enabling fingerprint scanners to not only start the car, but personalise the experience based on the driver. A high-end car manufacturer like Audi could use simple fingerprint unlock to start the car, begin your favourite playlist and change the seat height automatically, making for a frictionless driving experience.

In the event that Apple builds Touch ID support into more devices, like iPads and MacBooks—or an API that allows them to request your finger via the iPhone—it could create a ubiquitous payment and identity platform for the Internet and the real world. Websites like Amazon and eBay could use the fingerprint scanner to authenticate the purchaser’s information.

Additionally, Stoll believes that “personalization is something we eventually do need for iOS.” Through Touch ID, Apple could allow multiple user accounts, much like Android devices. He points out that “there simply isn’t enough storage to make that happen right now,” as you would need to have multiple sets of applications on the device rather than “just switching out system settings.”

Touch ID is built for the future
Many media organisations have described the iPhone 5s as uninteresting, but they are failing to see the possibilities of the new Apple technologies working together. If anything, the iPhone 5s offers one of the largest opportunities for application and hardware developers since the App Store opened.

Although a couple of hacking groups have already gotten around the fingerprint protection, Stoll isn’t worried about it. He points out that hacking the system “is extremely difficult, and requires advanced skills and training. [Of] the trade-offs between protection and convenience, users have always picked convenience.”

It’s time for marketers, hardware manufacturers and developers to start imagining the possibilities that this technology can bring. Even if Apple hasn’t opened Touch ID to the world of third-party applications right now, it’s hoped that they will at some point. Those who are ready to build apps and tech that utilise the fingerprint scanner will have the opportunity to change the way the world interacts.

Owen Williams is an infrastructure engineer with Xero.

Comments and questions
6

Meh - Give me a Samsung GS4 any day!

All the more reason to steal the owner's thumb, along with their phone.

It is a biometric scanner. The finger has to be alive.

Or at least still warm.

Those who managed to defeat the scanner already did not require a warm (or even lifelike) thumb. Be very concerned.

Articles of this nature are why those who haven't yet drunk the Apple kool-aid look on the cult with derision.

Wow - Apple soon will be able to offer something that has been possible in the general marketplace for over 2 years. But because it's Apple this time it's special.

The depressing thing is despite being nothing new; because it is Apple the market is still likely to flock to it while ignoring superior open options.