Upgrade Time? iPhone 5S with Touch ID

The 5S holds promise, but if you already have a 4S or better, it won’t blow you away.

Fingerprint readers are not new technology.  I loved the Microsoft Keyboard with Fingerprint Reader back in 2004.  It was more convenient than typing in a password to log on, and secure enough for the time.  As Windows versions advanced, support for the fingerprint reader dwindled, and it never fulfilled the promise of biometric authentication.  Here we are in 2013, and dealing with lots of passwords is still the order of the day.

Apple is taking a fresh stab at fingerprint recognition.  The time is ripe for success; logon passwords are more important than they used to be.  Ten years ago, a typical PC or device was not encrypted.  Physical access to a device meant ownership of the data, and logon passwords just kept the honest people honest.  Old fingerprint readers could be foiled with a gummi bear, but it didn’t really matter.

Things have changed.  Without an iPhone’s logon passcode, or now logon fingerprint, data on the device remains encrypted even if stolen.  A bad guy can have physical access to the phone, but he still needs to get though the passcode to access data.  Touch ID is not a gimmick; it’s a meaningful security measure.

That said, I’ve never seen a consumer biometric solution that worked very well.  The hardware and software components are usually built by several different vendors, and the fragmentation always shows.  In contrast, Apple’s vertical integration of hardware and software might allow Touch ID to be implemented as part of a holistic, integrated security scheme that really matters.   It could go a long way to ameliorating the problem of multiple usernames and passwords.

Early reports indicate that Touch ID is a real improvement upon the temperamental biometric fingerprint readers of the past, so I even though I skipped the iPhone 5, it might be time for an upgrade.  When iPhone users get used to life without passwords, they’ll want it on computers, too.  Count on a MacBook Pro with Touch ID.

Update 10/1/2013:

I went ahead ordered the 5S as an upgrade from the 4S.  The verdict:  Despite very many incremental improvements, if you’re happy with the 4S, the 5S probably won’t knock your socks off.

Touch ID holds a lot of promise, and the fingerprint registration/recognition is well done, but the initial software implementation overall leaves much to be desired.  Retyping web passwords is a special kind of drag when you have an underutilized fingerprint reader right in front of you.  The hardware upgrades on the 5S offer some exciting possibilities, and it will take the software some time to catch up — maybe enough time for the iPhone 6 to be released.

Does the 5S provide a “starkly noticeable change in experience and capability” compared to the 4S?  It depends on how much you hate typing in a passcode, or whether you intend on using Fitbit-style motion apps, which the 5S can handle without draining the battery.  Because it’s able run iOS 7, two years after release the iPhone 4S still holds up well.

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