Android Intelligence Analysis

Why most people won't use a smartphone iris scanner (a la the Galaxy Note 7's)

A reality check on the latest futuristic fad making its way to mainstream Android devices.

Galaxy Note 7 Iris Scanner

I don't know about you, but I sure do love stuff that seems like it's straight out of science fiction.

Lights that automatically adjust themselves to match the mood, reminders that pop up at just the right time or place, hoverboards that actually hover...

Okay, so that last one hasn't quite happened yet -- but great Scott, if it ever does, you'd better believe I'll be hopping in the nearest DeLorean and flooring it to 88 mph to see.

For as much as I appreciate futuristic tech, though, I've come to realize something: Just because a concept seems cool on the surface doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna be useful in the real world. And at the end of the day, practical value is far more important than eye-catching flash.

That distinction is something I can't help but think about when considering one of the marquee features in Samsung's new Galaxy Note 7 phone: the device's sure-to-be-heavily-marketed iris scanning ability.

I mean, c'mon: This thing's as science-fictiony as smartphone features get. Just stare into your device's screen and let it examine your eyes to see if you're the authorized owner. If your peepers are positively ID'd, huzzah! Instant access for you. If not, a trapdoor opens up beneath your feet and sends you straight to the fiery depths of hell. (Don't quote me on that last part.)

Cool, right? Absotively. But practical? I'm not so sure.

The reason is simple: Novel as it may seem, an iris scanner in this context is just too much of a nuisance to use. And in the realm of smartphone security, even the smallest amount of hassle is enough to get most people to say "screw it" and move on.

Take a second and think about what actually has to happen every time you want to unlock your phone with the Note 7's iris scanner: First, you have to turn on the device's display. Then, you have to swipe upward on the screen to activate the scanning system. After that, you have to position the phone just right to get it in line with your eyes. If you're in a room that's dimly lit (or if you're wearing glasses or contacts), it might take multiple tries or might not even work at all -- in which case, you'll have to resort to tapping in your backup passcode for access.

Now compare that to the experience of using a phone's fingerprint scanner for authorization: You touch your finger to the scanner (simultaneously pressing it, in the case of a Samsung device) and wait a split second. That's it.

Maybe we as consumers have gotten insanely lazy. Maybe our expectations have gotten unrealistic and our impatience has grown too high. However you want to untangle it, though, the reality is that an extra few seconds of futzing to get into your phone feels like an eternity -- and given the choice, most of us will do whatever we can to avoid it. Especially given how frequently we unlock our devices.

It's the same conclusion I reached when an Android manufacturer called Alcatel put a similar eye-scanning feature into its (less mainstream) Idol 3 phone last spring. And it's the same impression reviewers who are getting to know the Note 7 seem to be formulating now as well.

Plain and simple: Convenience is everything when it comes to making mobile security effective. If something's too much of a pain, we modern-day mammals won't use it.

That's why Google's gone to great lengths to implement features like Smart Lock into Android -- because the company found far too many people weren't even securing their phones in the first place without it. (Swipe in a pattern every single time I want to access my device?! Pshaw!)

And that's why I suspect most people aren't going to use a smartphone iris scanner in any long-term sense -- at least in the way the technology exists today. Sure, the feature looks great on paper and makes you feel like a spy the first time you try it, but convenience always trumps novelty in the end. 

And no matter how effective a security measure is, it's only effective if you actually use it -- every single time.

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