iPhone silly season and the elimination of Touch ID

We’re homing in on a likely fall iPhone rollout and the rumors are flying. John Gruber, from a piece titled iPhone silly season:

With software Apple can (and does) play a bit fast and loose. iOS 11.0 won’t be baked until late August. But software can (and always is) patched. Hardware doesn’t work like that. Many of the decisions related to the hardware on this year’s new iPhones were made two years ago. (And there are decisions being made now for 2019’s new iPhones.)

Is there a 3D laser sensor on the back of the new iPhone? Is there a Touch ID sensor? I don’t know. But Apple knows, and has known for a while. Months, even.


If the new iPhone ships without a Touch ID sensor and there is no replacement authentication technology that is as good or better than Touch ID — that would be a dead canary in the coal mine.

From this Bloomberg piece by Mark Gurman:

For its redesigned iPhone, set to go on sale later this year, Apple is testing an improved security system that allows users to log in, authenticate payments, and launch secure apps by scanning their face, according to people familiar with the product. This is powered by a new 3-D sensor, added the people, who asked not to be identified discussing technology that’s still in development. The company is also testing eye scanning to augment the system, one of the people said.

A move to add 3D face scanning is one thing. A move away from Touch ID is another thing entirely. Apple proved they are willing to (have the “Courage” to?) make a major hardware shift, forcibly doing away with one technology (the 3.5 mm headphone jack) to usher in a newer technology (Bluetooth headphones).

Will this be the case with Touch ID? As John Gruber says, that decision has likely already been made.

My two cents? “As good or better than Touch ID” has to address accessibility. If I am visually impaired, I can unlock my iPhone with my finger in the dark. An edge case, certainly, but one that is a bit of a litmus test for any Touch ID replacement.

In a low light environment, will I be able to unlock my iPhone with a facial scan? If I am in a meeting, I can subtly unlock my iPhone with my finger. Will I have to hold my next generation iPhone in front of my face to accomplish the same thing?

As John says, that would be a dead canary in the coal mine.

UPDATE: The new system is said to include an infrared camera and low angle support (hat tip to Rene Ritchie), which would solve the low light and hold the phone in front of my face scenarios. Other use cases include unlocking the phone while driving (say, to take a look at your map) and the mechanic of approving an Apple Pay purchase. All of these seem legitimately solvable if the underlying tech works as rumored. This is yet another opportunity for yet another magical Apple experience.


    “In a low light environment, will I be able to unlock my iPhone with a facial scan?”

    Yes as an infrared camera is reportedly part of the system.

    It’s also worth remembering that Touch ID itself is very frequently unusable (wet hands, etc).

  • Hopefully Apple has worked out all the security issues with facial recognition before they remove that TouchID. I want to turn off the facial scan if it is anything like Samsung’s and Google’s versions:


    • When are Apple’s implementations anything like Samsung’s crappy ones? As if Apple is going to release a product that can easily be spoofed with a photo. Or a water resistant phone that (wait for it) isn’t water resistant. Or, you know, blows up in a fiery ball of dangerous…

      • Their implementations haven’t been without issues in the past, but, yes, I realize using Samsung was not a good example. And we are further past the days of HP not being able to see black people.

        Still, I’m going to be skeptical of this one until I see it in action and make use of it.

  • Heos Phorus

    i’m pretty sure, it will work from a low angle and in bad lighting conditions – that’s the least it has to do. but if it also works if someone else points your iphone at your face (or can unlock it, when you’re sitting at the same table), it’s still not “as good as” touchID.

    you also won’t be able to “subtly unlock it with your finger in a meeting” when you don’t have direct line of sight (e.g. when the iphone is under the table or in your pocket, but as others have said, touchID also doesn’t always work (wet fingers, gloves), so it’s a trade off.

    • Those are absurd fringe cases. Being afraid of terrorists/cops/kids pointing your phone at your face without your consent is just absurd. If someone has your phone, and you, there is nothing more you can do. They can likewise make you put your finger on your phone.

      As for unlocking in your pocket, this is also absurd. You cannot use the phone in your pocket, you must interact with the screen.

      So sure, people can come up with off the wall “But it can’t do this!” use cases, but they’re fringe. As noted TouchID has them too. This is just the unreasoned panic people spew forth whenever there is change. People panicked over the rumored TouchID too, fearing finger chopping off and other absurdity.

      • that’s why a lot of people force-reboot their phones before they let the cops touch them. Invalidates TouchID, and a passcode falls under 5th amendment where a fingertouch does not.

        These aren’t “fringe” or edge case issues. Keeping the government out of your crap without a warrant is actually kind of important.

      • Heos Phorus

        yes, it’s about kids, that’s the sole reason i have touch-id activated on my phone. it won’t work against someone forcing me to put my finger on it anyway, but my kid can’t do that (yet). if it works from a shallow angle, it wouldn’t have to point it at my face. maybe it even works, when i have my eyes closed.

        as for unlocking in my pocket – granted, that’s a fringe case for the visually impaired who use their phone without looking at the screen. unlocking it under your desk is probably the more common use case and definitely not a fringe case (e.g. in schools)

        • Heos Phorus

          having said that – personally i don’t care that much about touchID – i don’t leave my phone unattended except when i’m at home and having it locked all the time comes with the trade-off that touch-id often doesn’t work (still rocking an iphone 5s), and it also introduces a short lag i’d rather do without. i’m also not ging to spend €1000 on a phone, ever, and preferring the iphone SE’s size – so no premium edition luxury iphone for me.

          i’m just sceptical that a face-detection-feature will work as personally and well (as touchID on post-5s-phones), but we’ll se how it plays out in the real world, if apple wasn’t able to put a reliable touchID – sensor under the display.

          • rick gregory

            Touch ID works fine and quite fast. You just have an old version

      • fastasleep

        The real thing to fear is someone cutting off your face to unlock your phone, obviously.

    • Herding_sheep

      And people argued Touch ID was still “not as good as” a strong password. Because the password remains in your mind, where your fingerprint can be taken from you by force. Exact same panic scenario people are dreaming up for face/iris unlock.

      The benefit Touch ID brought was convenience. It gave users a higher level of security than using NO password, while at the same time being very convenient and intuitive.

      This rumored Iris Engine moves along the exact same trajectory. Bringing more convenience, and closer to a persistent authenticated environment similar to Apple Watch. I guarantee Raise to wake will be renamed to Raise to unlock. Your phone will just auto unlock when you go to interact with it. Hence the iOS 11 changes of combining lock screen and notification center. Because you’ll never see the lock screen anymore. You know the Touch ID API to allow apps to authenticate? Well imagine just opening 1password and it doesn’t need to ask to authenticate AT ALL. It just opens when YOU use the phone. No more password or Touch ID pop ups at all anymore. If the screen is on and you can see the screen (at any angle), you are constantly being authenticated without any interaction on your end.

      Sounds like a game changer to me. Moving further along that “high security AND convenience” trajectory that Touch ID started. People will of course come up with all kinds of silly edge cases, just like they did with Touch ID, but in the bigger picture, we will be getting a more secure environment that is also more convenient and invisible to the user.

      • GlennC777

        Exactly. It’s about lowering friction while maintaining reasonable security.

  • There are already devices that can do FR in the dark using IR. This is not a new or valid concern.

  • Yawn. It’ll ship or it won’t; if it ships it’ll be good or it won’t. We’re still months away and talking about this is just stupid.

    • But hey, page views man, page views.

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  • “The new system is said to include an infrared camera and low angle support:”

    This is such utter bullshit. You’re referencing Rene’s complete speculation, which he floated as a dismissal of people making valid criticisms of his bit of apologia for “FaceID”, as if it’s some sort of confirmation.

    • Mo

      People familiar with the matter recommended sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.

  • Prof. Peabody

    I too am extremely sceptical of the idea of face-scanning replacing TouchID. I think it much more likely this capability will be more about Siri recognising who is talking to it, than any kind of sci-fi security system.

    To me, the big flaw in the idea that the one will replace the other is not the accuracy of the scan but the way it works. Face-scanning is automatic, whereas TouchID is user-initiated. It’s as simple as that.

    Because Face scanning is automatic, it can’t usefully replace TouchID without itself getting a “trigger” or a button to make it work at the exact moment that you want it to work. There are numerous situations with TouchID where the fact that it’s a BUTTON is crucial.

    The only possible “fix” I can think of (besides an actual button) is to ask Siri all the time for the initiation of the scan. But if we are honest, we all know that Siri isn’t accurate enough, for enough of the time for that to be truly reliable. It is also socially awkward in many situations for the user to have to talk to the phone.

    IMO face-scanning only makes sense in terms of an add-on for security, not the whole ball of wax. It has many other uses however, mostly in the area of personalisation.

    • Brandon

      I agree, TouchID is an extremely good method of securing a device simply and easily. It has it’s limitations, but is overall extremely reliable.

      Facial recognition may be added as a means of two-factor authentication for people with needs of higher security In the hands of devs, who knows what it could be used for.

      I think the Siri integration is spot on. Facial recognition could be used to increase the accuracy of Siri by following the movements of the mouth. This would be especially helpful in higher noise environments where Siri is useless.

    • rick gregory

      Yep. For example, I have Twelve South HiRise stand for my iPhone, an earlier version of this: https://www.twelvesouth.com/product/hirise-iphone

      That stands the phone up and tilts it back at an angle. Right now it lives under my screen and faces me. I don’t want the iPhone to unlock every time I walk up to the desk. Same for the dash mount in my car, etc.

      • fastasleep

        Wear a fake mustache when you don’t want it unlocked.

  • rick gregory

    But how do they deal with intention? When I use TouchID now it’s easy for the system to infer my intention to unlock the device. I don’t necessarily want to unlock it whenever the sensor sees my face. If the angle issue was really solved (and color me VERY skeptical of that – when the phone is tipped away from me etc the tech needed to reliably check that it’s my face would be fearsome) then why wouldn’t it unlock pretty much whenever it’s around me and can see my face? If it needs some gesture etc to indication intentionality then how is it really any better than Touch ID?

    • Cue the apologists response: “This hasn’t even been announced yet. We’re just speculating. I’m sure Apple will think of all this before shipping.” Because, see, rampant speculation based on Ming-Chi Kuo’s fever-dreams is fine when It’s Gruber or Ritchie, but pointing out potential issues with the tech makes you an alarmist.

      • GlennC777

        Apologist here. Gruber in particular has a very long record of being incisive and often spot-on in his analysis of likely future Apple products. Can’t read his occasional long predictive pieces without being impressed by the level of understanding and logic applied.

        Ming-Chi Kuo, as I think Gruber himself recently said, has a very good accuracy record with predictions related to the supply chain although much less so with predictions related to development.

        As to Face ID I’ll wait to see how it turns out. Apple sometimes hits home runs on this stuff and sometimes starts with a bunt to first.

  • rick gregory

    One more thing that people who are all on about this are ignoring- Gurman’s article says:

    “This is powered by a new 3-D sensor, added the people, who asked not to be identified discussing technology that’s still in development.”

    There’s NO WAY this feature is both still in development in the summer and going to appear in a shipping product this year. Do I believe Apple has this in development? Sure, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. Do I think it’s in development now and going to ship to tens of millions of people in 3-4 months? No.

    • GlennC777

      Could it be that the software component is still in development but the hardware is complete? That would make sense.