525 Million Smartphones Will Be Fingerprint Sensor-Enabled by 2017 - Thank You Apple

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A short while after Apple announced the new iPhone 5s and its fingerprint scanning technology, human interface expert Synaptics acquired fingerprint technology vendor Validity in early October. The deal is worth approximately $92.5 million and includes potential performance payments over a multi-year period that could reach a total potential deal value of up to $255 million. Clearly there is new found value in fingerprint scanning that we trace directly to Apple's endorsement of it with a very real device that will in short order reach well over 100 million very real users.

Fingerprint scanning is nothing new, but in fact it has been a technology that, while serving certain companies in need of such a fundamental security level for laptops and other tech-related uses, hasn't exactly been a market on fire. A number of laptops that target both enterprise and consumer uses have included such scanners - though we need to point out that they've all required a user moving a finger across a fixed scan line to read the fingerprint. Often these scans were and to this day still are not reliable or convenient to use. There are good reasons to why the technology hasn't been a mainstream winner.

Leave it to Apple then to create both a far more user friendly means of scanning that fingerprint reliably and conveniently. In fact, what Apple does isn't scanning at all but rather fingerprint imaging that requires no actual scanning. That, coupled with the fact that Apple's approach is both extremely user friendly and highly reliable underscores legitimately referring to what Apple has delivered as being a true innovation in our book. It is not, in any way, shape or form a gimmick with little real utility. Once you use it you cannot live without it.

Apple-Driven Growth Hardly Surprising

Given this new scenario, coupled with Synaptics diving into the market with a large dollar acquisition, it is hardly surprising to hear that we can now anticipate massive growth in the fingerprint scanning market. In fact, new research from MEMS and Sensors Service at IHS Research claims that Apple is indeed triggering a new technology boom. IHS makes clear that the Apple innovation will cause a major wave of imitators that will drive the market for fingerprint-enabled smartphones sky high.

IHS now projects that a total of 525 million smartphones with integrated fingerprint sensors will ship in 2017, up from a relatively small 45.7 million this year. That shipment number in itself for 2013 is enormous and represents an amazing 10X surge in sales from a volume of only 4.5 million in 2012. This amazing growth is shown in the chart below. For all practical purposes before the iPhone 5s there was no major market. Now clearly there is. It is another example of Apple innovation growing the overall mobile ecosystem.

The fingerprint-enabled iPhone 5s is inherently more secure for the simple reason that it is convenient enough to use - and reliable enough to use - that a large percentage of users will in fact permanently make use of it. The majority of smartphones today - even considering all the noise that exists around security and privacy - remain entirely unprotected. Convenience trumps security - remembering even a simple 4-digit passcode for your home screen is typically too much trouble to be bothered with for well over 50 percent of the mobile phone population. This is amazing to acknowledge considering the vast amount of personal data that now resides on smartphones.

The other benefit of the fingerprint scan course is to simplify authentication while at the same time adding a third, biometric component to authentication that makes it a more secure process. Again, considering the personal data at stake, anything that makes it easier and much more frictionless to secure a smartphone - while at the same time enhancing the level and quality of security - is highly desirable. It is nothing short of high value innovation.

Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for MEMS and Sensors at IHS, adds, “Fingerprint scanning for security, authentication and other purposes has always been a conceptually attractive solution in smartphones. However, cost, size, performance and reliability issues have prevented fingerprint sensors from attaining widespread adoption. With the introduction of the iPhone 5s, Apple has overcome these challenges and has offered a fingerprint sensor solution that delivers seamless functionality. Now that Apple has shown the way, competitors are in a race to enter the market with similar systems, propelling rapid growth in the coming years.”

Apple's AuthenTec Acquisition Key

IHS notes that fingerprint sensors are nothing new. They have been offered in handsets dating as far back as 2000, and were first employed in a cell phone sold by Sagem (right, a company most of us will claim never to have heard of though such devices certainly still exist; Sagem itself was long ago acquired). Other cell phone makers that have tried offering old fingerprint sensors include Fujitsu, Pantech, LG and Motorola. Suffice it to say these were "gimmicks" that did not work.

Apple acquired AuthenTec in 2012. We ourselves anticipated at the time that Apple was beginning to consider a more robust enterprise play. This isn't true but the enterprise will greatly benefit regardless. It is AuthenTec’s technology that delivers on the seamless implementation of the iPhone 5s sensor. Eliminating the need to "swipe" and simply integrating it into the Apple home button is - in our opinion - a monster achievement.

Delivering on the fingerprint sensor itself wasn't enough however. Reading and processing the information to accurately and quickly determine if the user is legitimate requires the much faster processing power of the A7 processor. Apple truly "crafted" the iPhone 5s and had to wait until all the necessary pieces (including the actual hardware sensor itself) were ready for prime time. And prime time for Apple means specifically delivering on an enormously positive user experience. That positive user experience is the driving force behind it all.

Competitors

IHS predicts that fingerprint technology will be initially limited to high-end smartphones before migrating to the mid-end. This will likely remain the case until the close of the forecast due to cost issues. There is certainly no arguing with that. It simply won't be possible to achieve the necessary quality of experience in lower level designs.

IHS notes that new fingerprint-enabled phones at present include HTC’s One Max, the Konka k5 Van Gogh (we've never heard of it, no) and the Pantech Vega Secret Note. IHS expects Samsung to roll out fingerprint-enabled smartphones in 2014. Well, or course! IHS further notes that Apple and Samsung will likely drive most of the volume in the smartphone market, leading to the 525 million unit shipments forecast in 2017.

Boustany adds, "The increasing awareness of security and the high value of data in handsets—combined with the convenience of solutions and the ‘me-too’ effect among OEMs - will serve to promote the usage of fingerprint sensors in handsets, along with other biometric technologies." Yes indeed - there is nothing to argue with here.

Smartphone brands now are working with what IHS underscores as in fact a small group of fingerprint technology suppliers to develop their own solutions. These suppliers include Validity, which as we noted earlier was acquired by Synaptics (clearly with very good reason!), IDEX, and Fingerprint Cards AB. It is worth noting that both Pantech and Konka are already working with Fingerprint Cards. Fingerprint Cards is also working with optical and biometric trackpad supplier CrucialTec.

For additional insights into the security capabilities that fingerprint scanners and sensors deliver, scope out the article, Implications of the iPhone 5s Fingerprint Scanner, written for us by the InfoTech Institute.

Leave it to Apple to create 525 million devices worth of a new rising tide for the industry.



Edited by Alisen Downey

TechZone360 Senior Editor

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