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Science

Apple swipes fingerprint tech off iPhone for now

Apple - known for surprises - surprised some industry experts with the release of a new smartphone many thought would include fingerprint technology. But the technology is on the way.

US-based consumer tech firm, Apple, has added a range of bells and whistles to its latest smartphone, the iPhone 5. But it has left off one feature that generated huge hype in the run-up to Wednesday's product launch - fingerprint technology.

The rumor mill has been in full swing ever since Apple acquired AuthenTec. The company specializes in making 2D finger print sensors.

Apple has been quiet about its reasons for buying the fingerprint specialist. And the company made no mention of the technology in its announcement.

Plenty of options

But analysts expect fingerprint sensors to emerge in future Apple products, possibly in the rumored iPad 4 next spring or Apple's annual refresh of the iPhone a year from now.

Or even in some other products.

"There are so many things that Apple could do with fingerprint technology," says Charlotte Miller, an analyst with the London-based Juniper Research. "Consider the Mac notebooks and some other high-end devices."

AuthenTec sensors are already used in a number of smartphones, including several manufactured by Japan's Fujitsu running the rival Android operating system. AuthenTec, which is based in the US, also claims to have the world's smallest fingerprint scanner in production.

Businessman scanning of a finger on a touch screen

Fingerprint scans are becoming a popular means of authentication

But how exactly Apple plans to use AuthenTec's know-how remains a closely held secret.

"It's really difficult to say what Apple intends to do with fingerprint technology," says Adam Leach, a mobile expert with the London-based consultancy Ovum. "Maybe they want to use fingerprints instead of their Apple IDs or for connecting with other devices."

Mobile Passport

Fingerprint scanning could play a role at some point in the new Passport service that Apple plans to launch with the autumn release of the iOS 6 mobile operating system.

The application is designed to store information such as store coupons, loyalty cards and even airline boarding passes. Users could, for instance, use the app to unlock information by scanning a finger over a sensor mounted in the front or back of their smartphones.

Several US airlines, including American Airlines and Delta Airlines, say they intend to develop apps for Passport.

Fingerprint technology is also expected to play an important role in mobile payments, an area of huge interest to Apple, which pioneered the successful iTunes payment solution.

Passport is viewed by many industry observers as a cornerstone of the company's planned mobile wallet solution.

Greater security

"Fingerprint sensors are a way to authenticate, a way to remove PINs and passwords," Leach says, and could add another level of security to Near Field Communications (NFC), a wireless technology which he sees as a "key enabler" for contactless payments.

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook (Photo: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach)

There was no mention of fingerprint technology from the Apple heads, but it's expected to emerge soon

"NFC was something that a lot of people expected to see in the new iPhone," says Leach.

The wireless communication chips contain information such as credit card billing numbers, which can be read by devices without having to make contact.

Roberta Cozza, a device analyst with IDC, believes Apple may wait before it adds NFC to the iPhone because the technology "isn't mature enough."

"Apple never introduces anything unless the company can give you a reason to have it and unless it really works," says Cozza.

NFC has reportedly struggled with some security issues.

Smart sensors

AuthenTec executive, Art Stewart, argues however that these issues could be resolved with the help of fingerprint scanning.

In a recent blog, Stewart wrote the company's smart sensor "strengthens security" in NFC-enabled smartphones.

The company's fingerprint identification is designed to work with NFC technology. It allows users, by swiping a finger across a sensor, to unlock their phones and activate the NFC transmitter and enable a payment or a boarding pass.

"I think a lot of people involved with mobile payments and NFC are really disappointed that the technology isn't in the new iPhone," says Miller of Juniper Research. "If it were a feature, you would have a lot of people suddenly talking about it because of Apple's high profile."

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