AuthenTec "Smart Sensor" appears key to Apple's urgent acquisition

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
Apple's urgency to gain access to AuthenTec technology, involving $27.5 million in up front payments during negotiations and culminating in a $356 million offer to acquire the entire company, appears targeted at an advanced "Smart Sensor" component that does more than just read fingerprints, but that's not all the acquisition target offered.

Apple's urgency to acquire AuthenTec was detailed in a Security and Exchange Commission filing.

However, that urgency is not explained simply in the interests of gaining access to fingerprint scanners, which have been in smartphones for years and in PCs for more than half a decade.

While the company has made acquisitions or intellectual property purchase deals simply to gain access to patents, the vast majority of Apple's recent acquisitions have been strategic deals to obtain the core technology behind what would become major marketing features of new products.

Authentec


Since 2009, Apple has only acquired a dozen other smaller companies. A quarter of these highly selective, strategic moves involved mapping companies, resulting in the new Maps features that will appear in iOS 6.

Most of Apple's other known acquisitions were also rapidly converted into key product features, from Lala (which made its way into iTunes Match) to Quattro Wireless (iAd) to Polar Rose (camera face recognition), IMSense (iPhone HDR) and Siri. The rest involved processor and chip design firms that rapidly made their way into the silicon of iOS devices.

AuthenTec's Smart Sensor

The most noteworthy public product AuthenTec has is not its run of the mill finger print scanners, but a new "Smart Sensor" that acts as a sophisticated touch pad controller.

While just 13.3mm wide by 3mm high and a scant 1.30 mm thick, the company's first Smart Sensor, announced in May just as Apple began its frantic efforts to buy the firm, packs a 500 pixel per inch, 192x8 pixel detection matrix and all the necessary finger print matching technology and security encryption to serve as a fully self contained finger recognizer.

AuthenTec notes that its "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. 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."



Additionally, AuthenTec has developed "anti-spoofing technology" that "dynamically measures the properties of finger skin placed on the sensor while the finger is being scanned. This patented technology ensures that only real fingerprints are read by converting the properties of the skin into digital data which are delivered to the host computer for analysis. AuthenTec anti-spoofing technology then compares the data with expected properties to ensure fingerprint authentication."

The company notes that "because of the approach, anyone who attempts to swipe the finger of a dead person in order to access important physical or logical data would fail."

A touch pad for iOS devices

However, in addition to basic fingerprint authentication (used to authorize a purchase or unlock the screen) the Smart Sensor is also capable of a variety of other touch-based features including personalization, or "the ability to associate different functions with different fingers."



Other AuthenTech customers' devices, including the new Fujitsu Regza (above), have opted to put the Smart Sensor on the back of the phone next to its camera, but the size and shape of that particular component, labeled as the AES850 and called "the world?s smallest authentication/navigation smart sensor in a durable package," appears capable of serving as an iPhone Home button.

This could allow Apple to supercharge its iOS Home button, enabling users to initiate different tasks (such as launching specific apps, Siri or Spotlight search; call a particular favorite contact; start a specific playlist or ask for directions to get home) with different fingers.

In addition, AuthenTec's Smart Sensor can also be used to provide touch-based navigation, functioning as a "precise cursor control for text editing," with support for "360 degree mouse navigation," "optical joystick emulation," or as a "unique turbo-scroll feature for rapid browsing of long emails, contact lists or websites," according to public information released by the firm prior to its acquisition.

In addition to a touch screen, or to replace it

While Apple's iPhone and iPad already have sophisticated touch screen for navigation, the addition of Smart Sensor could enhance the number of gestures users can easily perform by combining the two, similar to how mouse users coordinate the use of buttons with movement to perform a "drag and drop" operation.

For example, a user could perform a thumb swipe before scrolling in order to scroll twice as fast, when trying to navigate through a very long list. Or alternatively, swipe a particular finger to increase the sensitivity of a jog control to accurately step through a video one frame at a time.

AuthenTec's Smart Sensor could also be used to provide sophisticated touch controls on Apple's other products, such as the iPod shuffle and iPod nano, or to provide navigation on new devices without a screen at all.

AuthenTec's other offerings

In addition to its smart scanners, AuthenTec is also a fabless chip designer with a series of security processors and co-processors designed to accelerate authentication in VPN gateway products. The company also sells a QuickSec Mobile VPN client for Android, which is used by Samsung.

The company also develops IP cores for accelerating cryptography and encryption/decryption, features Apple could add to its System on a Chip designs to simplify and enhance the performance of iOS devices in handling HDCP (HDMI content protection) or integrating hardware acceleration of disk encryption, VPN services, app and iOS platform authentication (thwarting jailbreaks).

Some of AuthenTec's technology could also be incorporated into Apple's line of AirPort base stations to facilitate encrypted connections or implement securely shared base stations where anyone could opt to share their Internet connection to any nearby iCloud subscribers, for example.

This summer, AuthenTec collaborated with Alcatel-Lucent and Portugal Telecom to deliver a cross platform, live TV and video-on-demand service, with AuthenTec supplying the DRM. Apple could employ some of these same technologies to secure live TV distribution deals through its Apple TV product.

At the same time, Apple has also quickly abandoned technologies or products that were once strategic to its acquisition targets. When Apple acquired Emagic to obtain its Logic music product software, it simply canceled the Windows version that had previous accounted for half of the firm's sales.

Similarly, when Apple acquired PA Semi in 2008, it simply discontinued its primary product, a line of advanced PowerPC based PWRficient 64-bit SoCs, despite the products' recent debut.

Most recently, after Apple acquired mobile app search engine Chomp it simply dumped all support for Android apps, hardwiring its link to download the app to its own iTunes Store.

With Apple's acquisition still awaiting approval by shareholders, AuthenTec's website still makes mention of its Android product line. At the same time, it's likely that AuthenTec has granted licenses to its products and patented technologies that Apple could not revoke even if it were interested in doing so.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 57
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    ... This could allow Apple to supercharge its iOS Home button, enabling users to initiate different tasks (such as launching specific apps, Siri or Spotlight search; call a particular favorite (sic) contact; start a specific playlist or ask for directions to get home) with different fingers. ...


    For example, a user could perform a thumb swipe before scrolling in order to scroll twice as fast, when trying to navigate through a very long list. Or alternatively, swipe a particular finger to increase the sensitivity of a jog control to accurately step through a video one frame at a time. ...


     


    These both sound like incredibly wild and patently ridiculous speculations and something that Apple would never do IMO.  


     


    A Home button that does different things if pressed with different fingers?  Seriously?  No one sees the HUGE problems that would cause versus the very minimal gain for a small subset of users?  Gestures that do unexpected and completely different things when different users use them? Really?  


     


    Dumb de dumb dumb.  

  • Reply 2 of 57
    tallest skiltallest skil Posts: 43,399member


    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post

    …a small subset of users?


     


    I think the number of users with 10 fingers is pretty large. ????






    Dumb de dumb dumb.  



     


    One more and you have an antacid commercial.

  • Reply 3 of 57
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post


     


    ... wild and patently ridiculous speculations and something that Apple would never do IMO.  



    Apple apparently sees something useful in their technology. Probably something that the company itself does not even see.

  • Reply 4 of 57
    atashiatashi Posts: 59member


    If it could detect the direction a finger / thumb were moving, then it could serve as a 'joystick' in addition to being there for security etc.


     


    That'd be cool - better than an on-screen controller, and an alternative to using gravity / accellerometer for game control.

  • Reply 5 of 57
    allenbfallenbf Posts: 993member


    Sounds awesome.  I can use a different finger to automatically dial a specific person, without flipping to the contact list.  My mother in law is definitely going to be the middle finger.

  • Reply 6 of 57
    nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member


    Is that first pic a white iPhone 3GS sitting on an HP laptop?

  • Reply 7 of 57
    tallest skiltallest skil Posts: 43,399member


    Originally Posted by nagromme View Post

    Is that first pic a white iPhone 3GS sitting on an HP laptop?


     


    Think you might have your brands mixed up… 

  • Reply 8 of 57
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


     


    I think the number of users with 10 fingers is pretty large. ????



     


    Quote:

    Originally Posted by mstone View Post


    Apple apparently sees something useful in their technology. Probably something that the company itself does not even see.



     


    I guess I wasn't clear.  I think the technology is great, but I think those two particular speculations on possible uses of it by Apple Insider are terribly dumb (IMO of course).  They would only work if Apple is prepared to go the route of endless pages of settings which they basically never do.  They envision a complicated environment that would bewilder the average user and so would have to be enabled for the "small subset" of users that wanted these complications through settings.  It seems really unlikely to me.  


     


    I think it far more likely that they might integrate the sensor technology into their next round of screens so that it works invisibly in the background.  The next iPhone might be aware if someone other than the owner was using it for instance and shut down.  It might throw up a small square on the screen (anywhere on the screen) and ask for your thumbprint for authentication.  It might give them the ability to differentiate between live fingers touching the screen and a non-living object.  These are all great qualities to have and I'm sure the Apple designers have already thought of these ideas and more.  


     


    The anti-trust angle could be covered off by continuing to manufacture the sensors currently in use.  That way everyone has the same technology but only Apple has it integrated into the screen.  That's what I'd do anyway.  

  • Reply 9 of 57
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by nagromme View Post


    Is that first pic a white iPhone 3GS sitting on an HP laptop?



     


    It's a Samsung copy of a white iPhone 3Gs sitting on an HP copy of a Mac PowerBook keyboard.  :-)

  • Reply 10 of 57
    normmnormm Posts: 637member
    mstone wrote: »
    Apple apparently sees something useful in their technology. Probably something that the company itself does not even see.

    They could be interested in using the technology to improve their touch screens. But I'm guessing the most likely thing is a really good fingerprint sensor replacing the home button in every iDevice, which will cost them almost nothing with their economies of scale, but will be hard for their competitors to match. Perhaps it will maintly be used to tell who is using a shared device, so you can have per-user preferences. Or in combination with other sensors and information to facilitate secure transactions that others can't match. Or just to keep your own private data private.
  • Reply 11 of 57

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post


     


    These both sound like incredibly wild and patently ridiculous speculations and something that Apple would never do IMO.  


     


    A Home button that does different things if pressed with different fingers?  Seriously?  No one sees the HUGE problems that would cause versus the very minimal gain for a small subset of users?  Gestures that do unexpected and completely different things when different users use them? Really?  


     


    Dumb de dumb dumb.  



     






    Only users that have spent the time to set this up would know that each finger would do something different. For the 'non-power' users, it could behave as if all fingers should do the same. That said, I don't think Apple would do this either

  • Reply 12 of 57

    Quote:


    The company notes that "because of the approach, anyone who attempts to swipe the finger of a dead person in order to access important physical or logical data would fail."



     


    I'm intrigued.  How dead is too dead.  I bet if they were still warm it'd work...

  • Reply 13 of 57
    unicronunicron Posts: 154member


    I like the idea of logging into a MacBook with just a flick of a finger. And multi-user iPad would be great (finally!).


     


    How about a virtual joystick on a AppleTV remote?

  • Reply 14 of 57
    Dan_DilgerDan_Dilger Posts: 1,583member

    Quote:


    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post

     


    I guess I wasn't clear.  I think the technology is great, but I think those two particular speculations on possible uses of it by Apple Insider are terribly dumb (IMO of course).  They would only work if Apple is prepared to go the route of endless pages of settings which they basically never do.  They envision a complicated environment that would bewilder the average user and so would have to be enabled for the "small subset" of users that wanted these complications through settings.  It seems really unlikely to me.  


     


     


    Just like the "endless pages of settings" for multitouch options in OS X?


     


    I think it far more likely that they might integrate the sensor technology into their next round of screens so that it works invisibly in the background.  The next iPhone might be aware if someone other than the owner was using it for instance and shut down.  It might throw up a small square on the screen (anywhere on the screen) and ask for your thumbprint for authentication.  It might give them the ability to differentiate between live fingers touching the screen and a non-living object.  These are all great qualities to have and I'm sure the Apple designers have already thought of these ideas and more.  


     


    While doing magical "integration," why not put the speaker, mic and camera "in their next round of screens" too? Perhaps because it's just as ridiculous.


     


    The anti-trust angle could be covered off by continuing to manufacture the sensors currently in use.  That way everyone has the same technology but only Apple has it integrated into the screen.  That's what I'd do anyway.  



     


    You mean, if you were capable of developing products? Or capable of magical instantiation of your imagination unconstrained by reality? 

  • Reply 15 of 57
    robin huberrobin huber Posts: 3,462member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post


     


     


    They envision a complicated environment that would bewilder the average user and so would have to be enabled for the "small subset" of users that wanted these complications through settings.  It seems really unlikely to me.  


     



     


    This got me to thinking about touch typing, a rather complicated skill that was rather common for most of a century, but has recently fallen into disuse. Very few kids are learning it these days. Maybe something to replace touch typing is emerging, something that is gesture/action based rather than key/letter based. Sounds complicated at first to know all these various finger combinations, but if we can learn 26+ positions by touch, we all should be able to master them. Problem is, like the keyboard in its early years, we have not yet arrived at the gesture equivalent of the QWERTY standard. But we're slowly getting there. Pinch to zoom is pretty universal at this point.

  • Reply 16 of 57


    The company notes that "because of the approach, anyone who attempts to swipe the finger of a dead person in order to access important physical or logical data would fail."


    So if I'm stuck out in a snow storm and have to call for help, will I be able to unlock my phone?

  • Reply 17 of 57
    robin huberrobin huber Posts: 3,462member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by webweasel View Post


     


    I'm intrigued.  How dead is too dead.  I bet if they were still warm it'd work...



    The pens of screenwriters are poised to include this as a plot device in upcoming crime procedurals. Maybe just rufie the guy long enough to use his finger and he wakes up and never knows the difference? The code-rape drug.

  • Reply 18 of 57
    unicronunicron Posts: 154member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by rjbruce View Post


    So if I'm stuck out in a snow storm and have to call for help, will I be able to unlock my phone?



    Same way you do now. iPhone doesn't lock out emergency calls. 

  • Reply 19 of 57
    utsavautsava Posts: 53member


    That's a cool idea, but I don't think it grounded in the reality of this technolgy, at least in it's current state. The sensor is in silicon. Making this transparent for use under/above a screen would be a drastic departure from its current design and may not even be possible. More likely this is for a home button with embedded fingerprint reader. If Apple is serious about adding payment systems (NFC, Passbook, etc.) into their phones, having biometric authentication seems pretty smart. Integrating it into the little home button square would allow them to do so with little to no change to the device asthetics or the user interaction with the device. How cool would it be when you press the home button when the phone is in a locked state and instead of "slide to lock" it just says something like "authenticating" with a finger scanning animation. No more lock screen! On an updated iPad it could be the key to user profiles. No need ot select the user, just turn the device on like you normally would and it automaticall authenticates and loads your customized home screen/apps. Then use the scanner for all Passbook interactions that involve real money. Secure smartphone transactions. No brainer. 

  • Reply 20 of 57
    vadaniavadania Posts: 425member
    originalg wrote: »



    Only users that have spent the time to set this up would know that each finger would do something different. For the 'non-power' users, it could behave as if all fingers should do the same. That said, I don't think Apple would do this either

    For some reason iOS 'power users' sounds remarkably similar to 'hard core gamers' to me.

    I agree it seems unnecessary. Some of the ideas listed did seem pretty cool though.
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