iPhone 12 and the Touch ID button: Why Apple probably won't give it to us this year

One of the best new Apple features introduced during our unusual times may not appear in the iPhone 12. It may not arrive on any iPhone until next year -- if at all. Apple's new iPad Air, unveiled in mid-September and hitting the market later this month, relocates Touch ID to a button on the edge of the device. The company's upcoming iPhone 12 lineup, which will be unveiled at a virtual Apple event today (here's how to watch Apple's livestream) should do something similar, giving users an option between unlocking their iPhoneusing their face or unlocking it with their fingerprint as the world combats the coronavirus pandemic.

Apple's updated $599 (£579, AU$899) iPad Air integrates Touch ID into the power button on top of the tablet. This makes it easier for you to unlock the device while you're wearing a mask and allows Apple to include a larger screen in its tablet without relying on Face ID to unlock the device. To get Apple's face-unlocking technology in an iPad, users have to opt for one of the company's pricier Pro models.

When it comes to the upcoming iPhone 12 lineup, Apple would be smart to do something similar. But with its popular smartphone, it should pack in both Touch ID and Face ID to make it much faster to get into the device when wearing a mask. The novel coronavirus pandemic, which has been raging around the world for months, likely isn't going away anytime soon. And that means we'll all be wearing masks when leaving the home for the foreseeable future.

"The focus on the new integrated fingerprint reader likely presages that it will show up in the next iPhone as a hedge against Face ID," Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin noted.

If Apple hadn't already designed the feature into the Phone 12, though, it's unlikely it was added that soon before the launch. It takes Apple about a year to 18 months to develop each new iPhone, which means this year's models were designed well before the pandemic spread across the globe.

Read more: What will iPhone 12 look like? All the design clues, from screen size to colors

Apple's new devices, its second virtual presentation during the pandemic, come at a difficult time. The coronavirus has infected over 32 million people around the globe and killed nearly a million. Millions of people are out of work amid a recession that's hitting the US hard, and COVID-19 shows no signs of abating in many places in the world. People have been scooping up electronics that let them work or take classes at home -- like webcams and laptops -- but they've been shunning purchases like 5G smartphones. This year, the phone industry will see its biggest drop in sales in a decade, according to CCS Insight.

iPhone 12 and the Touch ID button: Why Apple probably won't give it to us this year

Apple typically holds a flashy product launch in September to show off its newest iPhones. On those occasions, the Apple Watch, iPad and other devices take a back seat to Apple's key smartphone, and the company sometimes holds another event in October for its iPads and Macs. This time around, the focus was on its other products, particularly the Apple Watch and the iPad. Apple earlier this year warned its iPhone production would be hurt by COVID-19, and in late July, it said its newest iPhones, which will sport super-fast 5G connectivity, would be delayed "by a few weeks" because of the pandemic.

As phones get slimmer and sleeker, companies have been looking for ways to cram a bigger screen into a smaller package without carving out space for a fingerprint sensor. Apple has relied on its Face ID to unlock its latest devices instead of a physical fingerprint reader, while other companies have commonly used techniques like embedding fingerprint sensors on the back or sides of devices or integrating the technology underneath the front display itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic makes the move back toward physical buttons, like the iPad Air's integrated Touch ID, attractive to potential buyers who get frustrated by typing in a passcode every time they want to access their devices.

Face ID's foibles

Starting with the iPhone 5S in 2013, Apple embedded its fingerprint sensor into a round button on the front of its devices, taking away real estate from the display. In 2017, it ditched the Touch ID-enabled home button in favor of Face ID technology for the iPhone X. Over the following years, Apple packed Face ID into its high-end phones and tablets, a move that allowed it to include bigger screens on the devices but keep a secure, fast way to unlock the gadgets.

As the coronavirus ravages the world and people seek protection by wearing masks, more consumers may seek out devices with physical unlock buttons. Apple's Face ID is more secure than Touch ID, but it doesn't work when someone's wearing a mask. In May, Apple made its devices unlock faster while wearing a mask, but it still requires someone to remove the mask for Face ID to work or to type in a passcode.

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Apple brought Touch ID back with March's iPhone SE. In that case, the technology was embedded into the round home button, and many applauded the ease of unlocking the device while wearing a face mask. But the inclusion of Touch ID in the home button limited the size of the phone's display. With the iPad Air, Apple has increased the screen size.

Android device makers, like Samsung, have included fingerprint unlocking technology in buttons on the sides of their phones for years, and they've also integrated the technology underneath the display itself -- something Apple hasn't done.

While in-screen fingerprint technology is attractive to users and device makers alike, it hasn't worked as well in practice as hoped. Early versions, on devices like Samsung's Galaxy S10, were slow, buggy and easy to hack. Qualcomm, the main provider of the technology, has made steady improvements to in-screen fingerprint technology, but it's still not widely used across the phone industry.

So far, there haven't been rumors about Apple incorporating Touch ID into the iPhone 12. But here's hoping it makes the move in the iPhone 13.

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