Years ago, as AuthenTec began selling its biometric products to hardware makers, the company envisioned a time when consumers could log in to their email or pay for a song with nothing more than a swipe of their finger.
Now, after more than a decade of development, its dream could soon become a reality thanks to Apple, which acquired the company in 2012 for a reported $356 million—and could help make AuthenTec's technology ubiquitous, even beyond the iPhone 5s.
When Apple revealed its high-end iPhone 5 last week, much of the media cooed over the device's tactile experience: a fingerprint sensor embedded in the home button that would enable users to unlock their phones simply by touching their fingers to the device.
It heralded an age when security and convenience were synonymous—and when infinite-character passwords were no longer necessary—allowing users to access apps or even confirm payments via their digital fingerprint IDs. And as Larry Ciaccia, the former CEO of AuthenTec, tells Fast Company, the technology could have many applications beyond the iPhone 5s—in, say, Macbook Airs or other Apple products of the future.
Ciaccia had been a leader at AuthenTec for more than seven years when Apple acquired the company. He assisted in the transition, and when we connected recently, he was careful not to speak out of turn about the hyper-secretive company. But he did give some hints as to what could be next for Apple's product line in this area. "Being able to make the sensor invisible was something that was always in AuthenTec's plan—having it be able to see through materials," Ciaccia explains. "So getting [the fingerprint sensor] under the trackpad, getting it under plastic, or getting it under the glass in a smartphone—these were all things that were actively being worked on."
It's a compelling notion. If Apple has worked to embed the sensor seamlessly in the iPhone 5s home button, perhaps its long-term ambitions are to have the sensor completely invisible, whether hidden underneath the device's touch-sensitive glass screen or maybe one day embedded in the plastic of the iPhone 5c. Perhaps it's inevitable that the fingerprint technology could find its way into the MacBook trackpad, too, in the future.
Of course, it depends on whether the technology is accepted by average customers, who are already wary of giving more personal data to tech companies. (Apple has tried to curb privacy concerns by making it so that fingerprint data will not leave your iPhone.) What's more, Apple has acknowledged the technology is not perfect—it has trouble reading prints covered in sweat, for example—nor has it been proven in market. Apple had to do a lot of work just to make the sensor accessible in mobile devices. "You're basically exposing a piece of silicon that's going to be in your pocket with hard keys and coins," Ciaccia says. "We were able to evolve the technology to address aesthetics and durability."
Unsurprisingly, Ciaccia has long been bullish on the technology's potential, whether in phones or laptops. "We thought it was just a killer application," he says.