Will phone makers follow Apple's lead on fingerprint tech?

Apple has often popularized new features for its gadgets that rivals later decided to adopt. We'll soon see if history repeats itself.

Apple introduced "Touch ID" with the iPhone 5S CNET Staff

One of Madison Avenue's more famous advertisements from the late 1970s noted that when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen. That referred to a famous Wall Street broker of the day. But the same adage might easily apply to Apple, whose product and design decisions have often been signposts for the rest of the tech industry.

Apple is no stranger to being a trendsetter. The company has pioneered a number of tools and features that competitors later made standard, like the CD-ROM drive and the computer mouse. The list extends to 3.5-inch disks, home printers, glass touchscreens, and desktop publishing software like Aldus. And just as Apple is well-known for adding features, it's also known for taking them away, as when it ditched the CD-ROM on the MacBook Air. Many rivals took notice and soon followed suit.

So with the commercial debut of the iPhone 5S, which sports new fingerprint-scanning technology that has excited keen interest -- and no small amount of plaudits from reviewers -- is history about to repeat itself?

In the last half year, a narrative has grown up suggesting that Apple was losing its innovation edge over competitors like Samsung. And while the commercial debut of new iPhones earlier this week was generally well received though not ecstatic , the the "Touch ID," fingerprint scanner, which replaces the "home" button and lets users ditch traditional passcodes, received particular notice.

"At the end of the day, when Apple does something, that means the technology is becoming mainstream," said Sebastien Taveau, CTO of Validity, a company that makes fingerprint scanning technology. Validity is a direct rival of AuthenTec, the company that Apple acquired in July 2012 for $365 million, which developed the technology behind what would become "Touch ID."

Apple, of course, did not invent the fingerprint scanner on personal computing devices (just like it didn't invent the tablet or MP3 player). But it's certainly in the position to popularize it. So it is that Taveau believes history will do the repetition thing.

"There will be some flagship phones with fingerprint scanners coming out in a few months other than the iPhone," Taveau said

He also offered anecdotal evidence that Apple's interest in fingerprint scanning is causing other phone makers to at least take another look at their product roadmaps: Taveau said that right after Apple acquired AuthenTec last year, the company began getting increased interest from customers and potential buyers. In the past few months and weeks, interest has grown even more. And after Apple's iPhone unveiling last week? "Oh it's been a very active few days," Taveau said.

He's not the only one who is bullish on fingerprint scanners becoming the norm.

"Within the next two years the vast majority of high-end smartphones will have biometrics and mainly fingerprint logins. It's going to be very useful for payments," David Marcus, president of eBay's PayPal, told USA Today last week.

If that is true, how much of fingerprint scanning's supposedly coming ubiquity could be attributed to Apple being the catalyst? "When you're the market leader, people look at you differently," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at technology market research firm NPD. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?"

But he also says that it's likely many other phone makers were working on fingerprint scanning products of their own, on their own schedules, trying to figure out the best implementations. But when Apple introduced its own scanner, it probably did two things: made them kickstart their own efforts, and also gave them a guinea pig to see how successful the feature could be.

Early reviews of the iPhone 5S indicate so far, so good. CNET's Scott Stein called it fast and simple and "the most interesting piece of iPhone tech in quite some time," though he's more intrigued by the feature's potential than what it can already do right now.

For its part, Samsung is at the moment unsurprisingly noncommittal. Said a spokesperson: "We haven't announced anything on fingerprint technology around smartphones/tablets."

 

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