By John Gruber
Flatfile: Never format messy spreadsheets again.
Seemingly-sensational Apple story from Bloomberg today, reported by Alex Webb and Sam Kim, “Inside Apple’s Struggle to Get the iPhone X to Market on Time”:
As of early fall, it was clearer than ever that production problems meant Apple Inc. wouldn’t have enough iPhone Xs in time for the holidays. The challenge was how to make the sophisticated phone — with advanced features such as facial recognition — in large enough numbers.
As Wall Street analysts and fan blogs watched for signs that the company would stumble, Apple came up with a solution: It quietly told suppliers they could reduce the accuracy of the face-recognition technology to make it easier to manufacture, according to people familiar with the situation.
That sounds terrible. But what exactly does it mean? Does it mean Face ID will create too many false positives? Does it mean it will be too slow? Does it mean there will be too many false negatives? Surprise surprise, Bloomberg doesn’t say.
Apple is famously demanding, leaning on suppliers and contract manufacturers to help it make technological leaps and retain a competitive edge. While a less accurate Face ID will still be far better than the existing Touch ID, the company’s decision to downgrade the technology for this model shows how hard it’s becoming to create cutting-edge features that consumers are hungry to try.
“Downgraded technology” sounds terrible. But which components, exactly, were “downgraded”?
Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said “Bloomberg’s claim that it reduced the accuracy spec for Face ID is completely false and we expect Face ID to be the new gold standard for facial authentication. The quality and accuracy of Face ID haven’t changed; it continues to be one in a million probability of a random person unlocking your iPhone with Face ID.”
It is extraordinary for Apple to issue a blanket “this is completely false” statement on any news story. Apple, as policy, no-comments every news story, even when they know it’s bullshit. So either this story is particularly strong bullshit, or Apple is lying, on the record, under an employee’s real name (as opposed to the anonymous “an Apple spokesperson” attribution).
And what exactly is the point of Bloomberg’s story if, as reported, “Face ID will still be far better than the existing Touch ID”?
To make matters worse, Apple lost one of its laser suppliers early on. Finisar Corp. failed to meet Apple’s specifications in time for the start of production, and now the Sunnyvale, California-based company is racing to meet the standards by the end of October. That left Apple reliant on fewer laser suppliers: Lumentum Holdings Inc. and II-VI Inc.
Apple didn’t “lose” a supplier — Apple cut the supplier because they weren’t producing adequate yields.
To boost the number of usable dot projectors and accelerate production, Apple relaxed some of the specifications for Face ID, according to a different person with knowledge of the process. As a result, it took less time to test completed modules, one of the major sticking points, the person said.
It’s not clear how much the new specs will reduce the technology’s efficacy.
Now we get to the real heart of the story. Did Apple adjust the specifications for the components, or just the testing parameters? And if “it’s not clear how much the new specs will reduce the technology’s efficacy”, what is the point of this story? When did Apple “relax” these specifications? Before or after the September event?
To be clear, I have no idea whether Face ID works as advertised or not. I haven’t used it even once yet. Maybe it stinks, maybe it’s great, maybe it’s somewhere in between. But Bloomberg clearly doesn’t know either, yet they published this story which has a headline and summary — “The company let suppliers reduce accuracy of the phone’s Face ID system to speed up production” — which suggests that Face ID is going to stink because Apple’s suppliers couldn’t get enough good components out the door. If this weren’t merely clickbait, they’d be able to say how well it actually works.
Frankly, I don’t trust anything Bloomberg reports about iPhones any more. On July 3, they published this piece by Mark Gurman, “Apple Tests 3-D Face Scanning to Unlock Next iPhone”:
Apple Inc. is working on a feature that will let you unlock your iPhone using your face instead of a fingerprint.
For its redesigned iPhone, set to go on sale later this year, Apple is testing an improved security system that allows users to log in, authenticate payments, and launch secure apps by scanning their face, according to people familiar with the product. This is powered by a new 3-D sensor, added the people, who asked not to be identified discussing technology that’s still in development. The company is also testing eye scanning to augment the system, one of the people said.
The sensor’s speed and accuracy are focal points of the feature. It can scan a user’s face and unlock the iPhone within a few hundred milliseconds, the person said. It is designed to work even if the device is laying flat on a table, rather than just close up to the face. The feature is still being tested and may not appear with the new device. However, the intent is for it to replace the Touch ID fingerprint scanner, according to the person. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
Apple did in fact replace Touch ID with Face ID in the iPhone X, but the timing on Gurman’s story is wrong. They weren’t “testing” the viability of any of this in July. According to several trusted sources within Apple, including multiple engineers who worked directly on the iPhone X project, the decision to go “all-in on Face ID” (in the words of one source) was made over a year ago. Further, the design of the iPhone X hardware was “locked” — again, a source’s word — prior to January 2017. If I had to wager, I’d say it was locked a few months before the end of 2016. This was a nine-month-old decision that Bloomberg reported in the present tense.
Beyond Bloomberg, there are the slew of reports from various “analysts” that suggested Apple was still working to incorporate Touch ID into the iPhone X display as late as this summer.
In a note sent out to investors on Friday, and subsequently obtained by AppleInsider, well-connected KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says he believes Apple is developing a new class of bio-recognition technologies that play nice with “full-face,” or zero-bezel, displays. Specifically, Kuo foresees Apple replacing existing Touch ID technology with optical fingerprint readers, a change that could arrive as soon as this year, as Apple is widely rumored to introduce a full-screen OLED iPhone model this fall.
By January, there were no plans to embed an “optical fingerprint reader” in the display of any Apple device this year. Apple did, of course, investigate ways to embed Touch ID sensors in edge-to-edge displays, but, again, those efforts were abandoned in favor of Face ID over a year ago.
Cowen and Company analyst Timoth Arcuri, on June 21 (of this year), under the AppleInsider headline “Apple Still Undecided on Fingerprint Tech for ‘iPhone 8’, No Shipments Until October”:
The OLED-embedded fingerprint technology for Apple’s “iPhone 8” is “still being worked out,” an analyst claimed on Wednesday, with the company only deciding on one of three options by the end of June.
The one settled point appears to be that there won’t be a sensor on the back of the phone, Cowen and Company’s Timothy Arcuri indicated in a memo obtained by AppleInsider. The three options include thinning the cover glass over a sensor area, creating a pinhole through the glass for an optical or ultrasonic sensor, or trying a “film” sensor integrated into the display, using either capacitive or infrared technology.
This, it turns out, was complete nonsense. Again, Apple was “all-in” on Face ID over a year ago. The idea that they were still “working this out” in June is a joke.
Apple has decided against an embedded Touch ID solution for its forthcoming “iPhone 8” handset, according to well-connected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, leaving the door open for competitor Samsung to debut similar technology in next year’s Galaxy Note 9.
In a note to investors obtained by AppleInsider, Kuo says Apple has “cancelled” plans to embed a fingerprint recognition solution in the next-generation flagship iPhone. The analyst left embedded Touch ID off a list of standout “iPhone 8” features published in July, but did not indicate that Apple had abandoned the initiative altogether.
As with Gurman’s report in June, the problem here is with the timing, not the facts. By August of this year, this was a nearly year-old decision.
The production delays earlier this summer stemmed in part from Apple’s decision to build new phones using organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, screens similar to those used by rival Samsung Electronics Co. At the same time, Apple decided to ditch the physical home button that contains fingerprint sensors for unlocking the device. Apple tried to embed the Touch ID function, or fingerprint scanner, in the new display, which proved difficult, the people familiar with the process said.
As deadlines approached, Apple eventually abandoned the fingerprint scanner, the people said, and users will unlock the phone using either an old-fashioned password or what is expected to be a new facial-recognition feature. Nonetheless, precious time was lost and production was put back by about a month, according to people familiar with the situation.
I quote the two Tokyo datelines in the byline because I don’t think this information came from Apple. Again, my sources at Apple, directly familiar with the decision, have told me that they chose Face ID over a year ago because they were convinced it was better than Touch ID. Touch ID was not abandoned because it was difficult to embed in the display.
For good measure while I’m pouring out the claim chowder, here’s Zach Epstein, writing for BGR on July 20, “I Might Know the Truth About Touch ID on Apple’s iPhone 8” (note that the device he refers to as “iPhone 8” is the iPhone X):
I have now received information from three different well-placed sources over the past few weeks, and they have all told me the same thing: The iPhone 8’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor is in the power button.
The news first came to me about a month ago from a source I know well. I’ve since been told the same thing by two additional sources I haven’t known for quite as long. All three sources have provided information to me in the past that has proven to be accurate.
That’s a lot of “well-placed sources” for a bullshit story.
All of this fits with what I’ve heard from rank-and-file engineering sources within Apple for years. To wit, producing hardware at the iPhone’s scale, while pushing the boundaries of the industry in technology, is so difficult, so complicated, that it requires hardware designs to be locked down far in advance of when iPhones are actually announced and released. Apple’s iPhone hardware engineering teams did not spend 2017 working on the iPhone X and iPhone 8 — they spent this year working on new iPhone hardware for 2018 and 2019 (and perhaps beyond). Hardware is nothing like software. If Apple had really been dithering over Touch ID-embedded-in-the-display vs. Face ID in June of this year, iPhone X wouldn’t be hitting the market until 2018. And the final decisions on the hardware for the iPhones that will be debuting next year are being made right now.
So where do these rumors come from? I don’t know. My guess is that if there’s an intent behind them, it’s that competitors (cough, Samsung?) within the Asian supply chain are attempting to sow doubt about Face ID. The narrative presented by analysts and certain news reports this summer was that Apple was still scrambling to get Touch ID working embedded within the iPhone X display, suggesting that Face ID was their Plan B.
People are naturally skeptical about biometric ID systems. They were skeptical about Touch ID when it was still only rumored, just like they’re skeptical now about Face ID. Today, though, Touch ID is both trusted and familiar. So rumors claiming that Apple really wanted to get Touch ID into iPhone X but had to settle for Face ID play into both the skepticism of the new and the comfort of the familiar. FUD is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
The other, simpler explanation is that it simply takes 9 months or longer for engineering decisions made within Apple to percolate out to the rumor reporters and analysts — and their sources are so far removed from the halls of Cupertino that they mistake old news for new news.