Analyst Brian Marshall with ISI Group believes Apple's purchase of AuthenTec, announced on Friday, makes strategic sense for the company. He noted that Apple acquires technology assets it sees as important for product differentiation.
AuthenTec said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it "cannot comment on Apple's intentions" for the acquisition, according to The Wall Street Journal. But AuthenTec is best known for making fingerprint sensors, with its technology shipped in more than 100 million portable devices, including more than 20 million mobile phones.
Marshall sees a number of key ways that Apple could leverage the assets it has acquired from AuthenTec. The most obvious use would be secure, touch-based fingerprint sensing technology that could be integrated into the iPhone and iPad.
That security technology could also be part of a mobile wallet application using near-field communications, he said in a note to investors Friday. That's another area where AuthenTec specializes, and rumors have claimed for years that Apple is very interested in integrating digital wallet technology into a future iPhone.
Analyst Maynard Um with Wells Fargo Securities also believes Apple is most likely interested in using fingerprint authentication for secure mobile payments.
As for other potential reasons for the deal, both Marshall and Um believe the purchase could allow Apple to enhance virtual private network, or VPN, technology in its iOS mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad. Such a move could bolster Apple's standing in the enterprise, both analysts said Friday.
Marshall also said the acquisition of the Melbourne, Fla.-based security firm could lead to improved capabilities with digital rights management, or DRM. In this way, Apple could help protect copyrighted content when it is shared and distributed across multiple PCs, TVs and mobile devices.
In addition, Um noted that AuthenTec's DRM solution is already used by operators to secure live and video-on-demand content. He believes Apple could leverage that technology in future devices, like the company's rumored full-fledged television set.
Some of Apple's recent acquisitions have helped to provide a clear picture of where the company is headed. For example, in 2010 Apple acquired Siri before integrating the voice-driven personal assistant technology into the iPhone 4S in 2011, while its purchases of mapping companies Poly9 Poly9 and C3 Technologies foreshadowed Apple's new Maps application for iOS 6.
On the hardware front, Apple bought ARM chip designer P.A. Semi in 2008 for $278 million, while another mobile chipmaker, Intrinsity, was purchased in 2010 for $121 million. Those acquisitions helped Apple build its own custom ARM processors for the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV.