Better Than A Password? To Unlock Your Mac, Just Knock

A new iPhone app called Knock lets you log in to your Mac just by knocking. It's more fun than useful, but boy, does it have design chops.

Knock is a new iOS app that allows you to unlock your Mac by rapping on your iPhone screen twice. But let's hold off on talking about that for a second. Let's instead focus on the video used to unveil the app in all its ironic, irreverent yet impeccably designed glory. Because that's basically Knock Software in a nutshell. These guys know app design, they just can’t help but have a sense of humor about it.

The scene is a dilapidated loft, paint flaking artfully off the walls. In the middle of the room, a MacBook Air sits open on a table. A man saunters in. He has the facial hair of a Red Sox pitcher, the sarcastic eyes of Adam Sandler, and the teeth of an ivory stallion. To the otherworldly tune of some mad theremin player, this strange jester glances sarcastically at the camera, smothers a grin, darts his eyes to an offscreen director, tenses his knuckles, and bounces his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Then he knocks twice on the iPhone in his pocket. A crescendo of rhythmic bells and gongs explodes as the MacBook Air magically unlocks itself. "WHAT JUST HAPPENED?" a Futura subtitle flashes across the screen. The subtitle might as well read: "WHAT WIZARDRY IS THIS?"

In reality, there's not much tech wizardry behind Knock at all. It's a pretty simple app, of questionable usefulness to many. But even if you only download Knock once, then never pick it up again, you'll be glad you did. The guys at Knock Software have some great design chops.

Knock is a dedicated iPhone app that pairs with your Mac. On iOS, motion detection can run in the background without an app being open, so Knock stays alert and watches for when you are near your Mac. When you get close enough to your Mac for Knock to see it, you simply "knock" on your iPhone's screen to shoot your Mac password across the Bluetooth ether and log you in.

On the official website, Knock sells itself as a more secure way to enter a password, but that's a bit of a stretch, as even the company's founder—Jon Schlossberg, who co-founded Knock Software along with engineer William Henderson—will admit.

"The longer story is that knocking is more secure than passwords that most people actually use," Schlossberg tells me. "When Will and I first met, we had a pretty typical entrepreneurs-trying-to-start-a-company conversation about the kind of stuff we hated. We both hated passwords, and felt like they needed fixing. After we dug into the passwords problem a bit, we found an incredible study of 32 million leaked passwords. Close to 50% of them were awful, totally insecure passwords like '123456' and 'qwerty'. That blew our minds, man."

Since knocking on your phone completely eliminates the hassle involved in having a difficult password, Knock's theory is that people can use more secure passwords instead of ones that are so easily guessed. Of course, if you don't have any problems entering a more secure password, installing Knock on your Mac is arguably less secure than leaving it off entirely, because now anyone with physical access to your iPhone can log in to your Mac.

But talking about security with Knock almost misses the point, because as debatably useful and possibly insecure as Knock actually is, it's really just beautifully designed. It's a breeze to set up in a process that looks and feels so effortless, sleek and intuitive that you could almost believe Apple had released it themselves. Even more impressively, once installed, Knock is completely invisible, needing to be loaded up again only when you reboot your phone.

Once you know Knock Software's pedigree—Schlossberg led UX at Bonobos, while Will Henderson created Square Wallet—the design chops on display on their website and in their first app together make a lot more sense. These guys are pros. But there's still one missing ingredient. Knock is more than just a perfectly realized but only debatably useful idea. It’s a perfectly realized, debatably useful idea glued together with a sense of humor.

"Silicon Valley just takes itself so seriously, man," Schlossberg says. "We just want to talk to our customers like we'd talk to our friends, and that means being lighthearted and not afraid to goof around." Even in one of the best-designed apps we've seen this year.

Knock is available now on the iOS App Store for $3.99. It will work on any Mac or iOS device sold from late 2011 on.

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3 Comments

  • Vsi-thinking Cardiff

    Great idea, but from James said it sounds like it's lacking a little in the execution. Hopefully some future updates will get the app and Mac connecting a little quicker.

  • getaloadofthis

    So the idea here is what -- to make it easier for OTHER people to access your mac?

  • James Pikover

    I've used this app after purchasing for the last four days (since Thursday) and I've found that the novelty is nice, but it sucks. It takes longer for the phone to connect via bluetooth than it does to type in any password, rehearsed or not. It takes longer once connected to unlock by tapping, because knocking on the phone isn't quite what the app is for, than it does to type in a password.

    Furthermore, the app doesn't sync very nicely. Over the weekend I didn't connect to my iMac, only to come back and see that it doesn't connect whatsoever. I disconnected and reconnected it through a new installation; still broken. Just not worth it.