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Andy Ihnatko

Biometrics: Come On, Now Touch Me Babe
October 3rd, 2003

First off, sensation-seekers, I need to correct an error from my previous column ("Behind The Curtain at PC Expo"). I mentioned in passing that IBM didn't have a booth at PC Expo when in fact, they did. My bad; judging from the map of the show floor, I reckon that I walked behind it several times during my three or four laps of the Javits hall, while searching for interesting products and services (on the first lap), no, really...there has to be a bunch of interesting products and services here (second lap), or during the third lap I was looking for a pushcart where I might buy a Coke. And then there was the Pity Lap, where I chiefly was taking goofy photos and killing time until my next meeting. So if I missed the IBM booth, it wasn't for lack of walking.

But nonetheless: IBM was there, I was wrong. My apologies.

Onward and upward. This time I want to talk about my desire to touch my PowerBook.

Of course, the basic impulse more often expresses itself as a desire to throw my PowerBook. The urge will be familiar to any fellow TiBook owner who uses AirPort. A TiBook is a marvelous thing. I ought to say that right at the beginning. Earlier this year, I wrote a review of Apple's new PowerBooks and spent a few weeks switching off between Lilith 6 (my TiBook) and the 17" and 12" models. I was dashed surprised to discover that the TiBook was my favorite form factor. For years I've been whining and moaning about the need for a teeny-tiny PowerBook, and Lord knows I loved carrying it around...but as a man whose favorite piece of office furniture is his sofa, I found myself having to write with my knees held together, the same way a proper debutante sits during the cotillion. Unconsciously it caused me to become far more conservative in my writing. On the 12", even tapping out the word "dashed" would have made me blush. I was relieved to return to Lilith, where I can relate the joke about the prelate and the oyster salesman and move right along to the next paragraph without a blip of self-consciousness.

As for the 17", it was neat. I love the illuminated keyboard. During my two weeks with the loaner, I also loved being the only one at Burger King munching on a Chicken Whopper Value Meal while watching his own private big-screen TV. But wowzers...that's one biiiiiig mutha. It's a prison lunch tray. It's a marvelous thing for editing video on, and if you're going to switch all of your work over to one single notebook forsaking all others, this is the baby. If someone offers to give you one for free, my overall recommendation is to mutter a quick Yes and then don't even look back.

But to actually buy one? You'd have to have a pretty specific need for that much screen real estate. It's great in the ads, it's a gem on your desktop, but the first time you try to use it on an airline tray table or on the same luncheonette counter that's supporting your chicken club sandwich, you're going to wish you'd chosen a smaller notebook and applied the extra dough towards a gala weekend in South Bend or something.

I thought the basic TiBook form factor gave you the best of both worlds. The screen is wider, so you have extra room for tool, if you're playing widescreen-formatted DVD's, it's like having a 17" TV with you in Row 23, Seat A. Yet for all that, it was slim and light, and if it wasn't nearly as wee as the 12" PowerBook, I didn't really mind the extra inches.

(My reaction to the 15" model, code named "Dear God...Just Release It Already"? Gimme gimme gimme. It's everything good about the TiBook, with none of the disadvantages.)

But the TiBook has always had one Achilles' heel: poor AirPort reception. And the Titanium panels dent and scratch sort of easily. Two Achilles' Heels. Plus, on many models, the paint on the frame starts to flake off. Three Achilles' Heels. Oh, and it has these rubber bumpers that protect the surface of the screen when it's closed, but they have a tendency to shear off, and...

Well, the one serious Achilles' Heel is the Airport thing. Apple placed its antennas on the bottom of the TiBook instead of up in the air around the screen, which means that they're easily shielded by common objects (like human knees) and if you're in an area of dodgy AirPort coverage, TiBook users enter a dead zone. We're left waving our machines over our heads as though we were offering a live sacrifice to a fickle God, where 12" PowerBook users are getting solid two bars of reception and can blithely continue to work.

The upshot of all this is that Lilith has trouble maintaining server connections in areas of weak coverage. There I am on the sofa, happily converting random transients in neurochemistry into text, when I foolishly reach over to the end-table for a drink and blammo: Lilith gets tilted in just the wrong direction and it loses its connection to the base station. Five seconds later, the mug is in my hand, the network connection is back, and every network resource that requires passwords needs me to enter them all over again.

Up and down, up and down. My iChat password used to be the name of a minor character in a favorite movie; within a week, that particular DVD was banished from the player. It's one of Scorsese's finest but even a peek at the opening credits brings up bad memories of having to re-type four or five passwords a couple of times every hour. My stomach goes all sour and then I need to go lie down.

Again, it's old news to TiBook let's get back to the issue of Touching. I want my next PowerBook to have biometric security and because at the time that I'm writing this, the Red Sox have lost two playoff games in one 24-hour period, I've had enough beers to make me serenely confident that if I simply write a column about it, I can make it all happen.

What I want is a little postage-stamp-sized pad on either side of the keyboard that'll read the fingerprint off the digit of my choice and use that data for keychain access. I double-click on an alias to open a remote server? I tap my finger and I'm in. Need to start up iChat? Finger. Someone's sent me an encrypted e-mail and I need to supply my private key? Finger. The soundtrack album to "Weird Al" Yankovic's feature film debut "UHF" has finally appeared on the iTunes Store for $9.99? You're catchin' on.

It's obviously a tremendous economy in terms of keystrokes. Do keep in mind that what with all the code and ephemera I bash out, I've been typing for several hours every day of my life since junior high. I like saving keystrokes. I figure I only have a limited number of them left in me before I have to delegate that sort of stuff to a helper monkey or something. So in the long run, replacing a fourteen-character password with a single tap of a fingerprint reader will probably allow me to write just one more bad review of a superhero-themed movie before I become workplace-disabled and finally am forced to learn how to work a french-fry machine.

But it's also a Big Win in terms of the number of personal CPU-cycles it saves. Like any suitably paranoid individual, my passwords are tortuous. Even the fake ones I make up for accessing porn sites are twelve letters long and are a mixture of letters, numbers, and punctuation. I have to settle down and think when I type them and at that stage in the day I just want to see the nude photos of Sybil Danning with as little muss and fuss as possible.

Pressing a finger onto a grey square on the keyboard? That's analog. Delightfully, trivially analog, coming out of the same part of the brain that keeps your right hand automatically dipping into the bag of Doritos in your lap until it's empty. And unlike a password, eggsucking weasels can't steal your fingerprints by looking over your shoulder...not without the aid of distraction and highly-specialized tools, anyway.

Fingerprints are also particularly well-suited to notebook use. The guy who walks off with your PowerBook also walks off with a hell of a lot of valuable information; essentially, he's got your entire universe in the trunk of his Dodge Valiant. A built-in super-hardcore fingerprint reader that's intimate with the fundamental operation of a PowerBook would offer unmitigated peace of mind. That PowerBook will not wake up from sleep or restart unless you personally are there to tap the keypad when requested. Period. It'll just display an address and phone number, and ask very nicely to be returned to its owner, while it secretly sends an SOS through any available network connection.

Most importantly, though, biometric security short-circuits all those undesirable elements of security which cause most normal users to not want to bother with it. Keychain Access is nice. It's definitely an improvement over having to keep track of 14 different passwords. But all it does is take the Large Collection Of Passwords That People Don't Want To Remember and replaces it with a smaller collection. Result: typing the word "password" into any login window will let you into a huge number of so-called "secure" systems.

It's so easy to short-circuit that problem. Make password-security a full-blown Aquafied interface element. When OS X needs to authenticate you, it subtly displays an onscreen fingerprint icon, much like the translucent brightness and volume icons that come up when you adjust 'em via the keyboard. See the icon, touch the pad, get a cookie, that's a good doggie. It couldn't be simpler.

Unfortunately, nobody's really taking the lead in the field of biometrics. Sony has a USB device called the Puppy, which works with X. Fine. But it's a USB device. Whenever you see the phrase "USB Device" you're supposed to add the prefix "Another bloody" and the suffix "...which I'm probably going to either forget to bring or leave behind somewhere." Not being built-in has limitations.

Plus, just imagine the statement that Apple would be making by building fingerprint-recognition into every Mac shipped. The company didn't make the mouse an option with the 128K Mac, after all: you got it whether you liked it or not, and because (a) every Mac had one and (b) Apple aggressively supported it in the OS, every third-party developer was thus positively-inclined towards supporting the mouse as well.

There aren't many big disadvantages to owning Macs, but one of them is being locked into the hardware that Apple chooses to sell. After all, we limped along for three years with the TiBook's consistent indifference to the presence of WiFi access points.

Built-in biometrics would show off the strength of this state of affairs. The Big Win of living under a dictatorship is that when the guy whose picture is on all the stamps and money decides that something should be done, then by golly it gets done. Yes, we all get a warm, fuzzy feeling when we march out into a school gymnasium and vote on stuff, but coming to a majority-fueled consensus wastes valuable time. Being the first Eastern European micronation to get cellphone towers is well worth the downside of occasionally being thrown into a canvas sack and beaten. I mean, ask around if you don't believe me.

Through accident and design, we have the hardware and OS that's least-vulnerable to Internet attacks. Through biometrics, we can also have the platform which most aggressively protects your information, and access to your services.

And the solution will be very Mac-like: we can make our computers more secure not by adding more security, but by making our existing security easier to use.

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

You can send your comments directly to Andy, or you can also post your comments below.

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