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You'll know Apple blew it when it makes a fingerprint dongle

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April 19th, 2017

I used to think that an Apple dongle like this could never exist

By now you've probably read that Apple's next flagship iPhone might be running a bit behind the company's usual release schedule. The culprit seems to be a fingerprint sensor of Apple’s own design, that’s meant to sit behind the full edge-to-edge OLED display on the front of the new premium iPhone. Apple’s said to be struggling to perfect the technology such that it can be mass produced at iPhone scale — a non-trivial task, to be sure. Samsung reportedly tried and failed to integrate a Synaptics sensor into the OLED display of the Galaxy S8, forcing it to move the sensor to an awkward position on the rear of the phone. There was a time when Apple could be expected to overcome these kinds of challenges to the surprise of the industry and the delight of its customers. Now, I'm not so sure. Personally, I'm treating the fingerprint sensor as a litmus test for Apple’s ability to innovate in a meaningful way.

I'm reminded of a chat I had with an HTC product manager the day after Apple announced the original iPhone in January of 2007. He doubted Apple's ability to mass produce a phone with a 3.5-inch capacitive multitouch display. In fact, he was so certain that he bet me Apple would fail to ship at scale (just 1 million devices at the time). History shows he was wrong — dramatically so. Apple even upgraded the display to glass a few months before the first iPhone shipped, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Apple's a company that's historically led from behind, often through the use of innovative new technologies applied to both the device and, importantly, to the manufacturing and assembly of the device. Remember, Apple didn't invent the mouse and graphical user interface, it refined what it saw at Xerox and gave it a home on a personal computer. Apple didn't invent the all-in-one desktop, it made it lickable. Apple didn't invent the MP3 player, it found a Toshiba hard drive that was simultaneously big enough and small enough to carry your entire music library, and then built a click-wheel controller to navigate it. Apple didn't invent the smartphone, it made it easy to use with a finger; just like it didn't invent the tablet, it stripped away the excess and turned Bill Gates' vision into a consumer hit.

I've been a fan of Apple product design since I purchased a "Graphite" Power Mac G4 back in 1999. I've since owned several generations of MacBooks, iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs, and lots and lots of Apple accessories. But something's changed. As a result I haven't upgraded my iPhone in three years, and I haven't felt compelled to buy an Apple Watch, new MacBook Pro, iPad Pro, or AirPods, despite my profession and a long cultivated habit of "needing" to own the latest and greatest. Lately I've been nagged by the knowledge that the latest Apple devices aren't the greatest available.

What kind of fool wants to charge and use their Magic Mouse at the same time?
Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Just look at this list of what I consider to be Apple hardware missteps or outright failures over the last few years:

  • The can't-innovate-my-ass Mac Pro debacle which won’t be fixed until next year at the earliest.
  • Removal of the iPhone's headphone jack, a move that was user-hostile and stupid, and hasn’t exactly sparked an industry trend.
  • A TouchBar of questionable value, that few apps support, on MacBooks with dubious "Pro" branding.
  • The iPhone 7 broke Apple's “tick tock” pattern of thoroughly refreshing its hardware every two years, allowing Samsung to set the new benchmark for smartphone design.
  • Apple's failed effort to bring sapphire glass to the iPhone, putting its supplier out of business in the process.
  • It quit making monitors, partnering with LG instead to create a beautiful display (in an ugly plastic stand) that could be defeated by a router.
  • It abandoned routers at a time when a new breed of mesh routers and smart homes were making the category interesting again.
  • After leading in voice, it’s now conceding the smart home to Google and Amazon with the lack of a Siri-based voice appliance, two-and-half years after the launch of Echo.
  • HomeKit devices are still few-and-far between (and therefore expensive) despite having launched three years ago.
  • The company killed off MagSafe instead of adapting it for the USB-C era.
  • A litany of bizarre and / or awkward design decisions that have resulted in the lumpy iPhone battery case, unrefined iPad Pro Smart Keyboard cover, ridiculous Pencil and Magic Mouse charging positions, iPhone camera bulges, and a forced need for dongles everywhere.

Note that I didn't include the Apple Watch in this list. The wearable has been a slow burner but it's certainly not a failure. However, I can't overlook the fact that the current WatchOS was completely redesigned — which is in itself a tacit admission that its original vision for the product was flawed.

One bright spot for Apple hardware innovation comes in the form of its AirPods, despite their toothbrush-in-the-ear aesthetic. People who own them seem to love them, and they approach wireless audio in new and sometimes surprising ways. But they’re still on six-week backorder some six months after going on sale. That means either Apple is seeing outrageous demand, or it’s suffering manufacturing troubles. In the past, I’d have assumed the former, but my gut now tells me it’s the latter.

Needless to say, I have my doubts that Apple will find an elegant fingerprint solution in time. Some analysts even speculate that Apple could remove the fingerprint sensor completely from the premium iPhone, relying upon advanced face or iris scanning instead. In that case, Apple’s new iPhone might not be able to support Touch ID-based Apple Pay transactions without a little help. And believe me, if you see a fingerprint dongle, you'll know that Apple blew it.