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Why Apple Made a Bad Bet on Face ID

October 30, 2017, 9:21 PM UTC

Steve Jobs was partly correct when he said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” By the time Ford (F) sold its first car in 1903, there were no paved roads or gas stations, so consumers wanted faster horses, not cars. Until Starbucks (SBUX) showed there was such a thing as premium coffee, all deli store coffee were considered to be the same. And in 2007, mobile phones didn’t really have third-party apps yet, so the Blackberry was the most desired phone—until the iPhone came along, of course.

But, there are still radical innovations that people will scratch their heads over even after they have seen them. Consider Apple’s innovative-but-failed products: Pippin game console, Newton PDA, Macintosh TV, G4 Cube, Macintosh Portable, Apple Lisa, and so on. Now it seems that the new iPhone X’s Face ID feature is on the test.

Facial recognition is already available in other smartphones, tablets, and laptops, with varying degrees of successful implementation. The Face ID is claimed to be the most sophisticated among them, but it will still need further refinements and updates in the coming years to work flawlessly. To get there, Apple has to overcome several hurdles. There are reports of iPhone X production delays due to manufacturing difficulties of the sensors that meet the accuracy requirements. It was also reported that, as a result, Apple had to reduce the accuracy requirement to meet the launch date. Some claim the push for Face ID was largely due to the design consideration of the full-glass face of the X, where the location of Touch ID sensor was an issue.

Aside from the supply chain problems, there are many reports and analyses that raise various user concerns on security, speed, convenience, accuracy, back-up PINs, and trust, among others. Apple’s own security guide admits that twins, some siblings, and children under the age of 13 may have higher probabilities of matching. And Sen. Al Franken even asked in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Is it currently possible—either remotely or through physical access to the device—for either Apple or a third party to extract and obtain usable faceprint data from the iPhone X?“ He also questioned the possibility of discrimination against people of color. In the introduction event, the Face ID unlocking demo did not work well, which ended up fueling the doubts.

But suppose all of these hurdles and negative perceptions on the technology are resolved in time. Is this feature one of those that we consumers do not know whether we want it until we actually try it? Perhaps yes. Oftentimes, Apple has proven the skeptics wrong. Many experts were skeptical when the first iPhone was launched in 2007, but it has changed the way we work and play. The iPad had met similar, if not more pessimistic, predictions, but it has become a runaway success. In 2015, Apple Watch had many analysts questioning: Why would anyone need a device whose role in our lives was not clearly explained? After two years of chugging along, however, there are some second, cautiously positive, views on the device, and its sales are steadily increasing.

Whether the iPhone X will be a successful product that will push Apple’s profit to a new level is one question. Assuming a positive answer to that, the next question is how much incremental value the Face ID feature will offer to consumers. So long as it’s just used as another way to unlock the phone, it doesn’t seem like much. Most consumers have no issue with the current array of unlocking methods: PINs, passwords, fingerprints, voice recognition, iris scanning, and the existing 2D face recognition.

Instead, how much its potential value can be realized depends on third-party developers, and how they might create apps and gadgets that may utilize the new feature. For one, the technology may be used to read subtle emotions, which can be applied to reading, watching, shopping, communicating, or finding new friends and significant others. Combined with the advances in the facial recognition technology and big data, someday a phone may be able to characterize individual personalities by facial expressions.

These potential applications will need full access to the Face ID interface as well as to the biometrics data. But due to the security and privacy concerns, it was reported that the company will “sandbox” the new iPhone’s facial recognition capacity in a way that prevents app makers from harvesting biometric data. With the Pandora’s box partially closed, it may be an uphill battle for the Face ID technology to become a must-have feature for future iPhones.

Chan Choi is a professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School.