KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has arguably the best track record in forecasting future Apple products, said the next-generation iPhone, likely called the "iPhone 5S" or "iPhone 6," will feature an integrated fingerprint sensor directly in the "home" button, likely replacing the need for usernames and passwords on the phone.
According to Kuo, the fingerprint sensor makes sense for an iPhone more so than for an Android or Windows Phone because the iPhone only uses one mechanical button, while other phones have sometimes three or more buttons. Trying to find which button is the "fingerprint sensor" on an Android phone could be potentially frustrating for users.
On an iPhone, however, a fingerprint sensor makes a great deal of sense. It's intuitive, it's secure and it makes customers feel like secret agents. Apple knew fingerprint sensing technology would be a hit a long time ago, so the company invested millions of dollars to start implementing this technology as soon as possible.
Borrowing From AuthenTec
Fingerprint sensing technology is something Apple badly wanted, so last July, Apple acquired Florida-based AuthenTec, which was floating around its new smart sensor technology to several electronics companies at the time, including Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, HP, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and others. Apple, however, was the only company that wanted to help develop the technology in addition to licensing it.
With so much competition, Apple quickly made a deal with AuthenTec to acquire the company for $356 million, explaining the cause for the urgency in its filing to the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission.
Apple doesn't acquire companies often, but when it does, it's for a big reason. Other companies acquired by Apple include Lala (now iTunes Match), Quattro Wireless (now iAd), Polar Rose (camera face recognition software), IMSense (iPhone HDR), and Siri (well, you know).
Why Apple Wanted Fingerprint Tech So Badly
According to the SEC filing, AuthenTec mentioned that its "portfolio of products has significantly expanded during the past two years and now includes smart fingerprint sensors, area sensors, fingerprint sensor chipsets and modules, USB fingerprint readers, identity management software and embedded hardware and software products and services."
AuthenTec's most prized, noteworthy product, the "Smart Sensor," is likely what Apple was after.
At just 3mm high and 1.3mm thick, AuthenTec's first Smart Sensor, which was announced last May -- right around the time Apple upped its efforts to buy the company -- crams a 500 pixel per inch, 192x8 pixel detection matrix and all the fingerprint matching technology necessary to accurately and securely detect and encrypt data about your finger.
"Semiconductor-based sensors are based on both capacitive and radio frequency (RF) technology that detects an image of the fingerprint ridge and valley pattern beneath the surface of the skin, thus capturing sharp and clear fingerprint patterns from the live layer," AuthenTec says about its technology on its website. "This approach, which is in marked contrast with optical, thermal and other solutions that simply read the surface of the skin, gives AuthenTec sensors significant advantages in image quality and in the protective coatings that the sensor can image through."
Furthermore, AuthenTec's "anti-spoofing technology" ensures that only real fingerprints are read by measuring the unique properties of the skin on your finger and translating those traits into digital data that's then compared with the "expected [fingerprint] properties."
But that's not all; AuthenTec's technology is so smart, it can differentiate your fingers so as to associate different functions with those fingers. For example, you can use different fingers to play music, or ask for directions, or call a particular contact.
If Apple can integrate this Smart Sensor technology into its multi-touch screens, the screen will also be able to differentiate between various fingers, allowing users to pull off even more gestures for more specific actions; in the same way that touching different mouse controls with keyboard functions perform different actions on the computer, Apple could use AuthenTec's fingerprint sensing technology to greatly expand the number of possibilities on iOS devices to improve overall interaction with devices. Patently Apple offers a fantastic description of how this biometric fingerprint technology could enhance iPhone activities like e-commerce.
Considering the urgency with which the AuthenTec deal was made as well as Kuo's strong track record, there's a great chance users will experience AuthenTec's fingerprint sensing technology for the iPhone 6, which is allegedly coming later this year.
iPhone 6: What Else We've Heard
According to Kuo, the iPhone 5S or 6 will feature a number of notable upgrades, including Apple's new A7 processor, an f2.0 aperture on the rear side camera with a new "smart LED flash" for enhanced photo-taking.
However, this new iPhone 5S or 6 won't be the only new iPhone released this year; analysts and supply chain sources are talking about a "low-cost" iPhone with a large screen, strangely listed as "iPhone Math," which is said to be sold in a variety of colors. The intention of this phone is to appeal to emerging markets, particularly those in such Asian countries as India and China, by offering an Apple-made solution that's cheap to produce.
Besides different screen sizes and colors, we've heard that Apple is focusing a great deal on the next-gen displays on these two phones. Apple may return to the drawing board on the iPhone 6, as the company is reportedly dissatisfied with the in-cell technologies used to make the iPhone 5's display, and it is considering other options.
A Jan. 3 report released by the China Times said Apple might switch to a "Touch On Display" panel currently in development at Taiwan-based Innolux Corp., which has reportedly been licensed to use Sharp's proprietary IGZO display technology.
Whether or not Apple chooses Innolux to make the next iPhone's screens, however, Apple is most likely going to feature Sharp's ultra-thin IGZO display technology in its next iPhone.
In late December, DigiTimes and Apple analyst Horace Dediu both mentioned Apple’s alleged investment in the ultra-thin IGZO displays produced by Sharp, predicting the inclusion of the technology in Apple’s next batch of iOS devices, including iPhones and iPads. Dediu also pointed to Apple’s recent $2.3 billion investment in “product tooling, manufacturing process equipment and infrastructure,” believing the cash was used to help bail out Sharp, which had been in financial straits in 2012. Sharp is reportedly going “all in” on IGZO technology, so it’s possible Apple saved Sharp to leverage its investment in the next generation of displays.
IGZO display technology is not only thin and tough, but it can even handle higher screen densities than Apple’s Retina display, which is visually stunning on its own. IGZO displays can reportedly handle display densities north of 330 ppi; for a quick comparison, the new iPad 4 can only achieve 264 ppi.
One of the advantages of IGZO display technology is its lower power consumption. Most Apple products, from the iPhone 5 to the iPad 4, require cartoonishly big batteries to achieve just eight hours of power -- this is because current-gen Retina displays are extremely power hungry. If Apple wanted its iPhone 6 to not only last longer during the day but also charge faster when plugged in, IGZO seems to be the way to go for the next generation of iOS devices.
Giving credence to these rumors, Taiwan-based AU Optronics (AUO) reportedly plans to develop a Retina display for the next-generation iPad Mini, which may require IGZO technology to make such a Retina display feasible.
Besides these display rumors, we haven't heard too much about what Apple will release in the iPhone 6. However, we have seen a few interesting patents: A patent filed in March but published in September described tactile keyboards, flexible displays and laser microphones and speakers built into an iPhone, designed to conform to the user's needs. Flexible displays would allow for easier holding and typing, while the highly advanced tactile screens would create buttons when needed so users can feel "keyboard" letters as they type, or touch the topography on Apple's Maps.
It's wishful thinking that Apple would include all these technologies in the iPhone 6 rather implement them over time, but it's certainly fun to think about them.
Apple sold 26.9 million iPhone units in Q4 2012, and it plans to announce sales figures for the iPhone 5, iPad 4 and iPad Mini during the company’s Q1 2013 earnings report press conference, scheduled to be released on Jan. 23.