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It's getting harder to use the iPhone without using TouchID

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A steady nudge toward fingerprint logins

Ever since I upgraded to iOS 10, it’s become a lot harder to unlock my phone. Before the upgrade, it was a simple swipe and passcode — a gesture I’ve done so many times that it’s burned into my muscle memory — but iOS 10 retakes that space for a new info panel. Now, I need to hit the home button and wait for a good half-second while my phone figures out i’m not submitting a fingerprint or calling up Siri. Then the keypad appears and I can tap in the code as usual. A half second isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things and some of it is the simple shock of the new, but it’s hard to escape the sluggish feeling. Even once I’m used to the new unlocking dance, it will still be slower.

Of course, none of this would be a problem if I were using TouchID. Now that the process is focused around the home button, using TouchID is even faster. But I don’t use TouchID, so it’s slower.

To fingerprint or not to fingerprint

The iPhone 7 will make that divide even starker. The home button isn’t a button on the 7; it’s just one more pressure-sensitive screen. In most cases, it handles TouchID even better than previous models, since registering a press is effectively the same movement as presenting your print. Logging in through the passcode isn’t any slower, but it isn’t faster either — and if you’re thrown off by the new taptic engine it might be a little weirder.

So, why not use TouchID? There’s a different reason for everyone. I have unusually shallow fingerprint ridges, through some combination of guitar playing and a possibly undiagnosed medical condition. TouchID still works decently well, but on the iPhone 6 at least, it’s still not as reliable as a passcode. I’ve met others who have problems from sweaty fingertips or just don’t like submitting their prints. Of course, it’s still entirely possible to use your iPhone that way — it’s just getting harder.

Beyond the iPhone, the shift to fingerprints has resulted in real changes to how much law enforcement can do with a locked phone. Police departments already have millions of prints on file, and they’re increasingly able to use those records to produce working finger models. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan successfully used a fingerprint model to unlock at Samsung Galaxy S6, after the original owner died under suspicious circumstances.

A familiar Apple nudge

The iPhone has specific protections against those attacks, although it’s not clear how many users are aware of them. The most fundamental levels of iOS encryption can only be unlocked by the passcode, and if your phone has powered down or stayed idle for 48 hours, the fingerprint won’t help. That’s why TouchID isn’t likely to make a difference in a San Bernardino scenario, unless police are able to pull prints and dummy up a model before the 48 hours are up. Still, the scenario has made some users wary about switching over the fingerprint logins, even as Apple offers more encouragement with each new product cycle.

It’s hard to say how many users are steering clear of TouchID. Statistics are hard to come by — and Apple in particular has been fairly tight-lipped — but there are likely more users sitting out the feature than Apple can ignore. In a small study from last summer, just under half of surveyed iPhone users reported using TouchID. That same year, many third-party apps reported as few as 15 percent of user sessions were launched with a TouchID unlock. Neither of those numbers are as reliable as I’d like, and it’s likely more users are converting to TouchID every month. Still, the figures suggest there are plenty of other passcode-clingers in the same boat as me.

In some ways, this is a familiar Apple nudge, the same playbook the company used to push us toward Lightning and USB-C. It’s oppressive at first, until you give in to Apple’s way of doing things and find out it works fine. Apple’s engineers clearly believe they’ve found the easiest way to securely unlock a phone, and they don’t want to waste any time encouraging people to do it any other way. According to Apple, the average iPhone user unlocks the phone 80 times a day, so making that process as painless as possible is a huge part of making the iPhone great. Why would you make it easier to do it the wrong way?

Fingerprints are different. They’re part of our bodies, and we might feel strange about presenting them to our phones. We might have physical quirks that makes them more difficult to register, or tricky to enroll. That’s not a problem for TouchID — the system is already smoother and more reliable than most login systems — but it means people who opt-out of fingerprint logins will have sticky reasons for doing so. Those may be problems Apple can’t nudge its way through.

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