The Return of Touch ID…or maybe not

Gruber finally clocked in on the Face ID vs Touch ID in the face mask era issue in his iPad Air review:

Will this Touch ID sensor in the power button ever make its way to iPhones? I think not…adding Touch ID to the iPhone power button doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Yes, across the world, many of us are wearing face masks whenever we venture outside the home, and Face ID doesn’t work with masked faces. (Some people report that it does work, sometimes, but it never works for me, and definitely is not officially supported.) But how would a Touch ID sensor on the power button work with an iPhone in a case? Most people use cases, and most cases cover the power button. That’s such a dealbreaker that I think the whole debate might end there. But even putting the issue of button-covering cases aside, how would Touch ID work alongside Face ID?

Practically speaking it would be nice to have Touch ID while wearing a face mask — trust me, I know — but conceptually it seems a bit mushy to have both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device. I think we’re more likely to see a better Face ID system that can identify us while we wear masks covering our mouths and noses than iPhones that have Touch ID sensors on the power button. If we, as humans, can recognize people we know while they’re wearing face masks, computers can do it too.

Gruber is somewhat sensible up to this point but then adds:

Touch ID that somehow works through the display, not the power button — that seems like an option worth pursuing, conceptual mushiness of dual biometric systems be damned.

Conceptual mush my ass. It’s too bad Gruber has never experienced Apple Pay Suica Express Transit, it would give him a better perspective and clarity on how big and important the Face ID vs Touch ID issue is for many iPhone users in Asian markets. As a regular Tokyo commuter I’m fortunate that Apple Pay Express Transit Suica makes Apple Pay on a Face ID iPhone tolerable when wearing a face mask, but the majority of Apple Pay users in Japan do the face mask passcode move.

Apple Pay launched after Touch ID for a reason: Apple Pay + Face ID/Touch ID is one complete thing. Apple Pay with passcodes is far more frustrating than a regular passcode unlock because it short circuits the entire Apple Pay experience and catches you at the worst moment when you least expect it, usually at checkout with the wrong Wallet card selected and people behind you. It’s so bad you want to go back to plastic.

There are no easy choices. An iPhone that does Face ID and Touch ID (in screen or button) would be expensive, risky, problematic and juggling both technologies will very likely suck UI performance-wise. We don’t need a repeat of the 3D Touch misstep because of cost and/or not panning out because Apple didn’t think things through.

Apple needs to see Face ID through, and it can, but developing it will take time. Even so there is a large installed base of Face ID devices now that will never work with face masks, users are going to be dealing with that issue for a long time. The real interesting thing for me is what Apple is telling customers on its own web pages. For example the Apple Pay Japan page for PASMO and Suica only shows Touch ID. It used to show Face ID too but that was removed with the Apple Pay PASMO launch refresh. Apple fully recognizes that Face ID is a marketing obstacle for Apple Pay in Japan.

Computers already recognize face masks, NEC face recognition technology does it very well. And we have Touchless Apple Pay on the horizon. The bottom line is…until Apple develops and delivers its own insanely great Face ID with x-ray vision, or licenses NEC face recognition technology, and delivers Apple Pay Touchless, Apple Pay on Apple Watch is the way to go.