Why Apple will disappoint businesses with iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner

Many businesses would welcome a reliable fingerprint scanner that employees could use when signing into applications and services on a smartphone. So interest in the fingerprint sensor Apple has included in its soon-to-be released iPhone 5S is high. Unfortunately, Apple is likely to disappoint.

Promising technology

On paper, the biometric technology in the latest version of the popular smartphone is promising. In the past, fingerprint scanners built into PCs and smartphones have been notoriously unreliable, leaving many consumers and businesses cold to the technology. Apple may have built a better scanner using the unique identification technology the company gained last year through the $356 million acquisition of Authentec.

What we know about Apple's technology is that it uses a sapphire crystal like a lens in photographing a person's fingerprint. Around the crystal, there is a stainless steel ring, called a capacitive sensor, that can identify a human finger by the way it disrupts the electrical field created by the ring.

People interested in the technology won't know how well it works until after the release of the iPhone 5S on Sept. 20. Nevertheless, months of media speculation leading up to the iPhone 5S launch has fueled interest.

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"It's gotten millions of people into the biometrics conversation that's been going on for 20 years," Paco Hope, a software security expert and principal consultant for Cigital, says. Until now, most of that conversation was among researchers and scanner manufacturers.

Apple could use this momentum to drive the use of fingerprint sensors and passwords as a leading form of two-factor authentication on mobile devices used in business. However, that's unlikely to happen because Apple remains a consumer electronics company.

Apple's silence

In introducing the scanner, called Touch ID, Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, discussed how it could be used to unlock the smartphone or sign into iTunes or the App Store. Schiller was silent on whether the scanner could be used for third-party software.

For that to happen, Apple would have to release the application programming interfaces that business software vendors could use to integrate products with the scanner. Companies would also want to use the APIs for incorporating the biometrics when signing into a corporate email server or other business software running on corporate networks.

Apple could decide to release the APIs after testing the technology on consumers. "Maybe the goal is to get it out there, making sure it works, and then really start peddling its capabilities as an extra layer of security for enterprise customers," William Stofega, an analyst for International Data Corp., told me.

While that might be true, Apple's track record with companies is not encouraging. The secretive computer maker has always preferred to provide limited access to its technology, which is why Mac OS X has never had more than a tiny share of the business market. On the other hand, Microsoft, which provides lots of hooks to Windows, dominates the desktop and laptop commercial markets.

Apple is providing a bunch of enterprise-pleasing security features in iOS 7, the operating system upgrade shipping with the iPhone 5S. For example, corporate and personal data can be segregated, a virtual private network can be used with individual apps and there's better support for mobile device management tools used to enforce corporate security policies.

But the scanner remains off limits, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

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