Co.Design

With The iPhone 5S, Apple Is Making You The Device

Why the iPhone 5S's fingerprint sensor is the next step toward the ultimate Apple product: iYou.

Apple has always been good at convincing people to interact with their computers by making them more intimate. The Apple II convinced people they needed a computer in their homes; the Mac anthropomorphized computers, made the metaphor of computing as relatable as a friendly face and a desktop. And the iPhone, of course, was a revolution precisely because it put a computer that responded to touch alone in the pockets of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Today, Apple introduced a new feature to the iPhone 5S: a built-in fingerprint sensor called Touch ID squirreled away under the home button that gives you increased security for your iDevice. At first blush, a fingerprint sensor seems like a step back from the spirit of computer-age intimacy Apple has made a business of selling in various permutations over the course of the last three decades. Everyone needs security, but there's nothing intimate about a deadbolt. Or is there? Locks are actually the model of intimacy: two unique pieces that belong to each other and only work when they fit together just so.

That's what Apple is after. To make you and your iPhone two parts of a whole. This humble fingerprint sensor, hidden away under the home button, is just the latest evolution to a product that Apple has been trying to build for 30 years.

As far back as July 2012, the writing was on the wall: Future iPhones would come with a built-in fingerprint sensor. Superficially, the benefits of a fingerprint sensor in every iPhone were obvious. iPhone theft is such a major problem that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has blamed iPhone thefts for the first crime-rate increase in 20 years. With iOS 7, Apple has unveiled a new feature called Activation Lock, guaranteeing a lost or stolen iPhone can't be wiped without access to a user's iCloud account. In conjunction with Touch ID, if a thief pickpockets you for your iPhone 5S, about the only thing he can do with the device is sell it for scrap.

But it would be shortsighted to think that Apple's aspirations for this dainty fingerprint sensor top out at locking out intruders. There are many things Apple can do with this technology besides just unlocking an iPhone. Apple has launched Touch ID modestly as a passcode and iTunes password replacement, but in the future, Apple could do more. Imagine logging into your Mac just by pressing your iPhone's home button within range of your home Wi-Fi network. Or go the other way: Imagine a future of iCloud where no matter what iMac or iPhone you're using, a simple fingerprint turns it into your device, complete with all your apps and data.

All of these possibilities are ultimately permutations on a theme that Apple has been pursuing all along. The iPhone 5S is hammering another mental link between Apple and our own senses of self-identity. For years, Cupertino's M.O. has been to convince us to link our identities with some coveted, sexy object made real through the power of industrial design. There's a reason the devices that Apple makes are called I-phones, I-pads, I-pods and I-macs. Apple means for us to see these devices as extensions of ourselves. Where touching your finger to your iPhone's home button literally injects it with your data, Touch ID could literally make your data device (but not platform!) agnostic.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to get you to live within the confines of Apple's walled gardens. These gardens--iOS, OS X, the App Store, iTunes, AirPlay, and so on--don't easily lead out, but they do lead to one another, tying Apple's customers up into a beautiful knot of consumerism that is just as much of a labyrinth as it is a matryoshka. Tantalizingly, the iPhone 5S's Touch ID sensor opens up a door to another garden--mobile payments--that could revolutionize the experience design of retail, and break Apple's ecosystem out into the physical world.

Just think: in a couple of years, Apple will have all the pieces in place to start taking a transaction fee out of physical purchases, not just digital ones. There will be iPhones in the pockets of hundreds of millions of people, and each one will be tied to a working credit card number. Not only that, but each iPhone will be uniquely self-identifying and fraud-proof in a way that a credit card can't be. Credit card fraud is one of the biggest day-to-day risks for business owners: If Apple could solve that problem, retail would jump at taking payments by iPhone, rolling out the infrastructure to do so and giving Apple a cut of real-world purchases. Likewise, imagine the convenience of leaving your wallet at home and not only paying for things with a wave of your iPhone but identifying yourself with it as well. This isn't a far-off pipe dream. Apple has already patented ways in which an iPhone with fingerprint sensor could be used to make retail payments.

The future Apple wants us to be heading toward is one in which we are all intermingled with Apple. A future where, united with Apple through design, we do not so much buy Apple devices as we are the device. A future where it's not just you, but iYou. And if Apple pulls it off, it all starts today, with a fingerprint.

[Video by Vivek Kemp | Product Images courtesy of Apple]

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12 Comments

  • Nat Scientist

    "Just think: in a couple of years, Apple will have all the pieces in
    place to start taking a transaction fee out of physical purchases, not
    just digital ones. "
    By way of redirecting those transaction fees into Apple by another name, or there's no there there of course. Fingerprint data will be hacked because they can.

  • Wouter du Toit

    I wonder how much Samsung and the others paid John Brownlee to write this amount of rubbish. Come on, get over yourself. 

  • Laurence744

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  • stefano aldighieri

    one has to give it to them, they can re-invent anything and people go uh - ah - oh all day long admiring their infinite genius.
    SEVERAL years ago Porsche Design had fingerprint recognition in their cellphone built by the now defunct Sagem.
    next year they will certainly invent the smart-watch, and the i-people will go nuts.

    disclaimer: i have been using apple computers for about 20 years, and still do; however, when it comes to phones and tablets i think android is miles ahead.
    the company USED to be great, when they really focused mainly on creating great product; today, their focus is in marketing average products and still sell them as if they were great.
    good for them. if only there was a half decent alternative OS, i would consider that, even their computer side is getting less and less attractive.

  • aol1

    Ug.  No.  You don't get it.  I think you're trying to put a spin on Apple's REAL business model, which is partly selling an experience.  But all the crap about getting you to live within Apple's walled garden?  For all that is good and holy please stop beating that dead horse.  I realize the simple-minded will disagree with me, but every competitor to Apple ALSO has a "walled garden" (if we must call it that, but it's a pretty inaccurate label).  I feel absolutely no lock-in to Apple, nor is my phone an extension of me nor am I the device.  I go where the experience and value proposition is best.  

  • symbolset

    I have made this argument before. When the end-user buys apps on one platform that becomes an incentive not to go to another. I am well invested in Android apps. I've got to figure the cost of replacing them if I switch to iOS in the cost of the change.

  • Sean Canton

    I don't want to be a device. Plain and simple. Computers are an extension of our mind and personality, they amplify and enable our thoughts. The interface is nothing but branded interference between our dreams and reality. 

  • Max Young II

    You are already an Apple device, one which is just beginning to learn that it is so... and having a hard time accepting the fact. You are not eating the Apple.. the Apple is eating you!