It’s been pretty widely known for a while now that Apple has been having big trouble in not-so-little China when it comes to the iPhone. The sprawling consumer electronics market, once the hotbed of Apple’s growth in iPhone sales, has been slagging for months now, especially for premium smartphone makers like Apple.
The problem goes far beyond the U.S.-China trade war, although that’s certainly had an impact on the overall Chinese economy, which has been seeing its worst downturn since 1990, to the extent that more consumers are either holding onto their old smartphones or looking to upgrade to considerably less expensive mid-tier devices.
It’s already been suggested by some analysts that Apple needs to make a special iPhone model just for China in order to address the specific needs of Chinese users, moving away from its “one-size-fits-all” approach to product design. While Apple has been reluctant to do this, last year’s long-overdue Dual-SIM version of the iPhone XS and XR that took two physical SIM cards (rather than an eSIM) was the first indicator that the company was at least willing to consider this approach, but it only came after six years of pushback by Apple’s team in China.
The Return of Touch ID Under Glass
While former Apple executives and analysts have been suggesting that Apple needs to create a distinct China-specific iPhone as a premium model, it seems that Apple may actually instead be looking to cut costs by designing a lower-end version that it could price more appropriately for Chinese consumers, almost all of whom have been flocking to competitors like Huawei that can offer much more affordable mid-range smartphones.
If the latest rumours floating around Chinese blogs are to be believed, Apple is planning to accomplish this by producing an iPhone without the expensive Face ID hardware, instead returning to the idea of under-display Touch ID that we heard about a couple of years back. According to The Global Times, Apple is planning to launch this as a new iPhone “tailored specifically for Chinese consumers,” and identifying Face ID as the most costly component that’s been driving up the price of iPhones, placing them out of the reach of many Chinese buyers.
The rumours cite sources in Apple’s supply chain, but since they don’t come from any of the usual reliable sources, they’re best taken with a healthy dose of salt right now. However, the idea isn’t completely out to lunch. Although the original rumours of Apple’s in-display Touch ID technology surfaced at a time before anybody knew Face ID was coming, and the concept was dismissed in a report from reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo last fall, in the past few months we’ve seen new indications that Apple is working on it again.
In February, Apple was granted a new patent that would enable it to turn the entire display into one big Touch ID reader, and while that patent was filed for back in 2016, a report in December suggested that the company was working to secure in-display Touch ID sensors for future devices. As recently as May, analysts from Barclays also shared their belief that Apple is planning to use the technology for full-screen Touch ID as early as 2020.
Touch ID in China
While under-glass fingerprint sensors sound like they could be just as expensive as Face ID, the adoption of this technology by many other competing smartphone makers has actually driven the price down, making the sensors and other components considerably cheaper.
However, there may also be more to Apple’s adoption of in-display Touch ID than simply producing an affordable iPhone for Chinese consumers. Ironically, the technology is now more cost-effective because it’s become much more popular among Chinese smartphones, with brands like Huawei now sporting in-display fingerprint readers as almost a standard feature. Implementing similar (but undoubtedly better) Touch ID capabilities into a Chinese iPhone model would be a design that’s now familiar to many smartphone users in China, and may even be a specific feature that many are looking for. By comparison, it’s unclear how popular Face ID has been in China.
That said, if Apple is actually working on a design like this, it’s still at least a year or two out, and it does seem odd that it would be released solely in China, although that may depend on exactly where Apple wants to position it in the lineup. For example, if it matches the specs of Apple’s flagship iPhone in terms of processor, camera, and display, simply swapping Face ID for the new Touch ID, it’s easy to see how Apple would want to avoid mixing up its iPhone lineup with too many models.