Why Apple won't let developers near Touch ID in the iPhone 5S

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

There was probably about as much chance of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) allowing third-party apps to make use of the fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5S as there was of the Sept. 10 launch event being live-streamed. Still, indie developers have reasons to be disappointed. 

Although the use cases for a fingerprint scanner and enterprise apps are probably fairly obvious--what company isn't concerned about mobile security at this point?--consumer apps and games would have found considerable value here. Fingerprint authentication, if it takes hold, is faster and easier than any other kind of sign-in, and it's more mobile than even the most powerful smartphone. Even Facebook, which has tried and nearly succeeded in dominating the authentication space with its Facebook Connect technology, doesn't have something as powerful as fingerprint recognition at its disposal.

Just look at more desktop- or tablet-oriented apps like Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) to understand the appeal. Netflix recently rolled out profiles to help consumers better manage the titles they watch and the recommendations they receive. Similarly, the iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner, called Touch ID, will support the use of multiple fingers, which means if your kid tries to take your iPhone 5S, there will be limits to what they can or can't do. Touch ID allows Apple to potentially offer greater degrees of personalization as part of its overall user experience, which is also something the savviest app developers are trying to do. Whether it's in-app purchase offers, rewards or advertising, the services will only deepen engagement as they seem relevant, and a fingerprint is the best way to ensure the right user is logged in.

So why did Apple leave its developer community in the cold? Possibly because biometric technology, which has been widely available for more than 15 years, has almost always flopped in the consumer space. I've seen plenty of laptops and thin client devices which have touted it as a game-changer, only to have users resolutely stick to keying in their names and passwords. There can be something creepy about using your fingerprint, which we tend to associate with the tracking and identification of criminals, to access a piece of hardware or software. Particularly in a time when the headlines are still full of NSA snooping, Apple knows better than to do anything that would lead consumers to worry that one of the most personal identifiers they possess could fall into the wrong hands.

Developers can only respond by continuing to create app experiences that build trust among consumers. They need to work harder to proactively protect their privacy and deliver content that positions them less as voyeurs as more as customer-friendly. Until we see a day when mobile app transparency codes of conduct are redundant, or when consumers don't occasionally feel betrayed by the developers whose apps they've given personal information, don't expect Apple or anyone else to offer biometric SDKs. The company behind the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C is known for keeping the reins tight, but in this case it's with good reason. -Shane