SAN JOSE, Calif. Pushing beyond PC passwords, IBM Corp., Gateway Inc. and at least one other notebook maker will roll out systems with integrated fingerprint recognition sensors this year. Driving the trend are sensors with improved size, cost and reliability as well as a belief the sensors will deliver more secure authentication with less hassle than passwords.
Sensors that spanned the full fingertip used to cost about $35. Today's thinner slider sensors stitch together multiple slices of an image as a user rolls a fingertip across the sensor and cost as little as $6 to $8 in large volumes.
"All of a sudden this becomes viable [for notebooks]. When you get down below $10 a lot of companies get interested," said Stacy Cannady, a product manager for client security in IBM's PC division.
IBM will use the TouchStrip two-chip set from STMicroelectronics, in part because it includes its own 32-bit custom CPU that matches fingerprint images at the sensor rather than using the host processor. A spokesman for Gateway (Poway, Calif.) confirmed it will announce notebooks with integrated fingerprint sensors in the next few weeks, though the company would not comment on which sensor it is using.
Francois Jeanneau, a product marketing manager for STM, said his company has three notebook design wins set to ship this year, though he would not divulge names. He expects the sensor to ship in volumes of hundreds of thousands in generally high-end notebooks this year, and rising in 2005.
"We are seeing a broad range of OEMs interested for a broad range of products," said Jeanneau.
Intel Corp. laid some technical groundwork for the move over the past year, setting down requirements and coordinating testing for fingerprint sensors. A total of four sensors from three vendors Atmel, AuthenTec Inc. (Melbourne, Fla.) and STM passed the tests.
"We think the time has come for fingerprint sensors. Passwords are running out of gas and don't solve the problem by themselves," said Kelan Silvester, a platform security architect for Intel. "A lot of the work at this point is just marketing and encouraging people to use the technology," he added.
MicronPC LLC (Nampa, Idaho) and Samsung are already shipping notebook models with fingerprint sensors. Intel's next-generation notebook reference design, dubbed Florence, includes a full-sized sensor from STM.
Some remain skeptical. Hewlett-Packard recently discontinued sales of an older-generation fingerprint sensor it offered as an option on some PC models. However, the company is expanding use of the sensors on its PDAs, and it is putting smart card readers and embedded encryption chips on an increasing number of notebooks.
"Based on our past experience, the uptake [for fingerprint sensors] was slow, but looking forward better authentication is seen as critical. We think embedded encryption chips and smart cards are the best near-term opportunity," said Matt Wagner, a product-marketing manager for security and wireless in HP's notebook group.
Fingerprint readers have been unreliable in past tests, sometimes failing to correctly authenticate users with dirty or greasy hands, said Wagner.
Nevertheless, HP used Atmel's FingerChip sensor in a high-end model of its iPaq PDA rolled out a year ago at a price of about $599. The company is expected to use the sensor in midrange models costing about $400 that will roll out in the next few weeks.
Atmel has developed new software for the FingerChip that allows it to be used both as a fingerprint recognition device and as a mouse, said B. Jeffrey Katz, vice president of marketing for Atmel. Sharp also uses the chip in a new notebook, he said.