WHAT REALLY HAPPENED WITH APPLE’S FACE ID ‘FAIL’ ONSTAGE
The internet is buzzing. As Apple (AAPL) demonstrated its new flagship phoneonstage, the $999 iPhone X, the face-recognition unlocking feature failed. Bigly and splashily.
Apple software head Craig Federighi’s live demo had only just begun.
“Unlocking it is as easy as looking at it and swiping up,” he said, picking up the phone at his podium. “And—you know—“
The audience knew right away that something was wrong. Not because the phone didn’t unlock automatically and instantly, as it should have, but because Federighi seemed rattled.
He hit the Sleep switch to turn off the screen. “Let’s try that again,” he said.
No luck. “Ho ho ho! Let’s go to backup here!”
He picked up a second, backup demo phone. This time, the Face ID worked, and he went on with his demo.
But the headlines jumped to swift and merciless conclusions: Face ID had failed.
“Apple suffers embarrassing demo Face ID fail at iPhone X launch,” wrote the Telegraph. “Apple’s Face ID unlocking failed during its big demo,” said Business Insider. “Apple’s stock suddenly dropped after that Face ID fail,” went Vice.
In fact, though, Face ID performed perfectly. It appears somebody at Apple set up the phone incorrectly.
To see what really happened, just look at the screen Federighi was confronting. It says, “Your passcode is required to enable Face ID.”
Every iPhone owner has seen this screen. It’s the message you see when you restart your iPhone, rather than just waking it. If you wake your phone, you can unlock it with your fingerprint. But if it’s been off, you have to enter your password manually, every single time. (Same thing on Samsung phones, by the way.)
It’s a security measure, meant to prevent evildoers from hacking the phone to get your fingerprint data. “Your fingerprints aren’t actually stored in your iPhone,” explains Apple consultant Chuck Rogers on Quora. “The iPhone stores numerical representations of your fingerprints in something called the Secure Enclave. When you place your finger on the Home button/sensor, it compares the numerical representation of your fingerprint scan with what is stored in the Secure Enclave.
“Your passcode is required when you restart because it unlocks the Secure Enclave. Without entering your passcode at restart, your iPhone cannot recognize your fingerprint(s), because the Secure Enclave is not accessible until after you enter the passcode.”
Exactly the same system is at work on the iPhone X. You can unlock a sleeping phone with face recognition. But if the phone has been restarted or shut off, you still have to enter your password manually.
Somebody, in the process of setting up Federighi’s demo phone, had restarted it before the show. The “passcode is required” message protected Federighi’s stored face data, just the way today’s phones protect your stored fingerprint data.
Embarrassing? Yes. Foolish? Yes. Did the demo go as planned? No.
But did Face ID actually fail? No, it didn’t. In fact, it worked flawlessly.[UPDATE: Commenters have noted that the “passcode is required” message doesn’t have the same wording as the one that you see, on a Touch ID phone, after a restart. Instead, it resembles the message you see when someone has tried Touch ID unsuccessfully too many times. If Face ID uses the same scheme, we can’t know whohad tried it unsuccessfully—stage crew? keynote team member?—but it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t Federighi. If he had tried and failed before the show, he certainly would have insisted on troubleshooting the phone after the first failure. In other words, something went wrong, but it wasn’t Face ID misbehaving.