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Apple deal points to NFC iPhone - eventually

But new pay-by-bonk kit probably won't need fingering first

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SEC filings from Apple-acquisition AuthenTec state that fingerprint and secure-element technology is coming to Apple devices, and soon, but it still might be too early to call the NFC iPhone, and probably wrong to imagine the pay-by-bonk tech will use digit-scanning for authentication.

The Next Web doesn’t think so, presenting the documentary evidence and concluding that a Fingerprint-secured pay-by-bonk service is the only logical conclusion, but if Apple were really ramping up production of NFC hardware then, NFC Times argues, surely they'd be component shortages by now, yet none are being reported.

AuthenTec, for which Apple is paying $350m, has two decent technologies in addition to its flagship fingerprint reader: a DRM product well suited to protecting High Definition content, and a secure-element platform well placed to compete with ARM's TrustZone and Googles Giesecke-&-Devrient-supplied secure storage – which backs up Google Wallet.

Directly following the deal, our own Faultline argued that it was the latter of these was that attracted the Cupertino eye, and it's probably true that Apple will make use of AuthenTec's whole portfolio, but the filed documents quoted by The Next Web state explicitly that ridge-reading is in Cupertino's future:

"The IP agreement provides Apple with the right to acquire non-exclusive licenses ... for commercialization of 2D fingerprint sensors for use in or with Apple products."

So Apple may well make use of AuthenTec's secure platform, and DRM technology, but it seems that at least one Apple product will be reading fingerprints too.

Fingerprint readers have been on phones before, and not only for security: a fingerprint reader is basically an upside-down mouse, so a well-placed reader can be used as a navigational track pad as well as a security device, assuming one isn't in the labouring classes. Working with wood is particularly hazardous to one's fingerprints, but any manual labour can distort them. AuthenTec claims its subcutaneous scanning solves that problem, but given Apple's target demographic it's probably not an issue.

More questionable is if reading a fingerprint is an intuitive way of authenticating a pay-by-bonk transaction. Google Wallet requires shoppers to enter a four-digit PIN before every transaction, even for a few cents, while UK pay-by-bonk regulation permits a slapped phone to spend up to £20 with no user input at all, just as it does plastic cards. Apple will have a hard time bringing a fingerprint-swipe up to the fluidity for which it has become famous.

Then there's the time scales. Negotiations apparently started between the two companies late last year, but the agreement was only reached in June – leaving Apple three months to redesign and adapt the AuthenTec reader into the Home button (as TNW predicts) and get the thing manufactured for shipping in September (the currently rumoured launch date), which is aggressive by anyone's standards.

NFC Times, talking to suppliers and manufacturers of NFC components, is adamant that there will be no NFC iPhone this year. The publication points out that only NXP is equipped to provide the volumes Apple would need (on the premise that Apple would want to NFC-equip its whole range), and that supplies of NXP chips have remained steady over the last six months.

So if Apple isn't planning to combine fingering with paying by bonk then what is Cupertino planning to do with AuthenTec's technology? Perhaps TNW is half-right, and Apple engineers have managed to get a fingerprint reader into the home button – but for navigation and securing Passbook only – with NFC to follow next year.

These questions are far from idle. Companies are betting huge amounts of money on mobile commerce and Apple's entry into the market will change the dynamic entirely. Most people in the industry are at the point where they just wish Apple would just do something, anything, to show its hand and let everyone get back to work, which is all to Cupertino's benefit of course. ®

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