As I mentioned last week, the new Touch ID feature of the iPhone 5S is (at least for the moment) only usable by Apple created software. What this means is that a developer can’t take advantage of the feature to authenticate a user inside an application, it can only be used to unlock the phone and authenticate to iTunes.
This continues a troubling trend we’ve seen with Apple lately. Nearly two years after the release of Siri, the voice UI is still locked out for anyone but Apple and their chosen partners (such as Wolfram Alpha.) I understand that opening up a technology for third party usage takes planning and work, but twice in a row now, Apple has released what could be a transformative technology, and left the developer community out of the picture.
No one is asking Apple to rush an API to market before it’s ready—Ok, I’m sure there are lots of developers who are, but I’m not—But when you add something as central to a phone’s design as a fingerprint sensor, it makes no sense at all to restrict its usage to such a small set of functions. Imagine if all the accelerometer had be able to do was change the orientation of the phone. All those awesome iPhone games that used device tilt in place of a joystick would never have happened. In the same way, not having access to Touch ID means that developers can’t bring their genius to bear on what is likely to be considered the premiere feature of the iPhone 5S.
This isn’t just something that developers notice either. I’ve talked to lots of end users who wonder why Siri can’t access content or functionality from non-Apple apps. And the iPhone 5S is going to seem pretty inane if you can unlock the phone with your finger, but then have to go back to typing in passwords as soon as you try to log into your bank with an app.
The App Store is (arguably) what has defined the iPhone. By cutting developers out of all the new headline-catching technologies, it opens up a tremendous window of opportunity for Android (and, I suppose Windows.) Android has historically let developers access just about anything they want on the phone, and adding fingerprint sensors will be a logical next step now that Apple has thrown down the gauntlet. With access to the Touch ID capabilities unlikely before iOS8 at this point, or at least WWDC2014, that’s a lot of time for Android to lure over developers with less restrictive policies.