Imagining iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C: Fingerprint scanner, sensors, and ports

Analyzing rumors and speculation surrounding Apple's 2013 iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including how the fingerprint scanner will attack the problems of mobile authentication and identity

If the rumors are true, the 2013 flagship iPhone will be a S-class update, just like the iPhone 3GS in 2009 and the iPhone 4S in 2011. That means that while the overall look and feel won't change, some special new feature will be offered to make it a more enticing upgrade than it seems on the surface. Video recording and Siri fit that bill the last two times. This time it seems like it'll be a fingerprint scanner. Could any additional new or updated sensors come along for the ride? What about speakers or connectors or other new hardware? When the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c are introduced next week, just what exactly will be introduced along with them?

iPhone 5s: As in scanner

The iPhone was born with sensors. When Steve Jobs first showed the original off on stage in 2007 he showed off an accelerometer, a proximity detector, and an ambient light detector. In 2009 the iPhone 3GS added a magnometer (digital compass), in 2010 the iPhone 4 added a gyroscope, and in 2011 the iPhone 4S added an infrared sensor. Step by step the iPhone learned more and more about its environment, but not about us.

Talk of a fingerprint scanner went into high gear in 2012 when Apple bought AuthenTec. The concept had been tried in smartphones before, both in old Windows Mobile devices and more recently in the Motorola Atrix. Results were... suboptimal. The idea, however, is provocative - there's a real problem to be solved.

Authentication on mobile sucks. Accurately entering a strong, 63-character pseudo-random passcode on any mobile keyboard would likely take longer than the thermal life of our current star. Even entering weak 4 digit passcodes is annoying enough the vast majority of normal people simply never enable it. (Notice how it's not on by default.) Likewise, geeks who know better will reduce complexity for ease of entry.

Security and convenience are constantly at war, and for most people, most of the time, convenience wins. The same is true of many more complicated computing concepts. It's why Apple made iCloud and Time Machine, so more people would backup and restore. It's why they hid the file system in iOS and transitioned to automatic document saving in OS X. It's why they're developing Siri.

Identity is also becoming more and more important. Google and Facebook will peck you to into walking death if you don't give them a real name and phone number. Financial transactions won't go through if you don't provide the right account name and password.

A fingerprint scan begins to solve these problems and in an interesting way. You can have your fingerprint read in lieu of entering a password, which provides both security and convenience. It would also prove that you're you, at least reasonably enough, without the need to have your real name projected onto some cockamamie social network.

Apple will likely have to tune the precision way down initially to prevent false negatives - which would cause everyone to turn it off - but over time the precision would improve with the technology. Apparently a ton of testing has been going on around this for the last little while at Apple. Different people have different finger sizes and hold their devices differently. It's a non-trivial thing to address, and not surprisingly, Apple wants and needs to nail the balance.

Second, Apple will likely have to constrain fingerprint authentication to device unlock at first to prove the concept. People are change adverse and we generally fear new technology. It's why car makers dribble out things like automatic parallel parking instead of just unleashing Knight Riders onto the street all at once.

The iPhone 5s will have a fingerprint scanner in the Home button. You'll touch it. It'll authenticate and authorize you to access your device. Over time, and over the course of software and hardware updates, as the technology and acceptance of it improves, it'll get tied into iCloud so it can unlock all your keychains (passwords), iTunes so it can unlock all your digital transactions, and Passbook so it can unlock all your real world transactions. It'll become your Apple ID. It'll become your wallet.

And like Passbook, and Siri, it'll be an introduction, a first step, a work in progress. In typical Apple fashion, when they attempt to mainstream a previously niche technology in order to enable a feature they want to provide, they'll start slow, but it will have a lot of really obvious potential.

Whether it will, at launch or eventually, support multiple people, is a question. Whether you'll be able to, at launch or eventually, use both the fingerprint scanner and a passcode (something you are and something you know) for multi-factor authentication, is a question. Whether Apple will provide an authentication API, at launch or eventually, so developers can use the fingerprint scanner to secure their apps, and features within their apps, is a question. Whether Siri and FaceTime will one day allow an additional authentication factors - "My voice is my passport" "my eyes are my keys" - is a question.

What the privacy ramifications are to identity is the biggest question of all. Given all the NSA scandals in the news as of late, the idea that your identity can be linked to your communications and transactions on devices sold in the hundreds of millions will absolutely have an impact. "We have biometric evidence it was you who sent that email" or "your thumbprint was read just prior to downloading that torrent" are things we as a society will have to consider. There is no more trust between people and technology companies who have provided data to governments. This will end up being one more consideration in the security/privacy vs. convenience equation. Some won't care. Some won't ever use it.

As to worries about the reliability of the Home button mechanism itself, Apple has been steadily improving that over the last few generations. The iPhone 4 wasn't really up to the load placed upon it by task switching, but the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 have held up much better, including to Siri. Any new feature is a new complication, but the load shouldn't be any heavier than it was on the previous generations. (I do wish multitasking was gesture - swipe up - based, but that ship has sailed.)

In terms of other sensors, biometrics - blood pressure, sugar, etc. - are being worked on for the "iWatch but there's been nothing to suggest they'll make their way into the iPhone sooner.

The other buttons should stay the same, including Sleep/Wake, Ring/Mute, and the Volume Up/Down. Likewise the 3.5mm headset jack is an iPod staple, and the 30-pin Dock connector only just gave way to the new Lightning connector last year, so no changes there.

iOS devices still don't use PCI architecture, so Thunderbolt still isn't possible on the iPhone or iPad. There's nothing to indicate that can or will change with the iPhone 5s. Also, the current NAND flash Apple uses saturates below USB 3.0 speeds, making a USB 3.0 Lightning connector useless. Whether faster NAND flash is viable or not, technologies like 802.11ac Wi-Fi might render them unnecessary, at least in the vast majority of cases for the vast majority of people. No wireless charging options seem to be coming in the short term, however, so the cable lives.

Apple did go to dual, stereo speakers in the iPad mini last year, and likely will in the iPad 5 later this year as well. The iPhone is small enough that stereo might not matter, though other manufacturers have upped the speaker game considerably, especially HTC. It would be nice if the company that created the iPod became the company that provided the best speaker experience on mobile as well.

iPhone 5c: Sensing same

The less expensive iPhone 5c, in keeping with the presumption of its being an iPhone 5 in a new, colorful, polycarbonate coating - won't be getting the fingerprint scanner, or anything else beyond what was put into the iPhone 5 last year. Keeping the high-end iPhone 5s obviously high end is part of the iPhone 5c's job, after all.

More to come!

We'll be imagining a lot more about the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including designs, screens, cameras, chipsets, finger-print readers and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when someone at Apple holds it - or them - up on stage, presumably on September 10.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.