If you’ve been around here for a little while, you likely remember my decision to buy a phone other than the Pixel 4 XL and then my subsequent return to Google’s latest flagship smartphone. There were multiple reasons for my decision to avoid it in the first place and then for the eventual purchase, but one of the early complaints I had was the lack of fingerprint scanner and the less-supported face unlock that Google chose to go with for this phone.
My original argument went something like this: it will take months if not longer for app developers to get on board with a new unlock method that is only offered on a single Android device, so I don’t really want to have to mess with all of that until it is supported across the board. Along with my other hangups around the Pixel 4, that particular issue was enough to initially push me to stay away. I then came across a handful of sources that seemed to allude to the fact that Google was changing the unlock API on Android and that developers would be forced to utilize this new API in order to update their apps.
While it seemed that Google was going to be bullish and force developers to use this new updated API by November 1, it seems Google has decided not to force anyone to do anything at this point. As we approach January 1st and a full 2 months removed from this supposed deadline for face unlock support, it looks like less than 30 total apps actually support face unlock at this point. Square Cash (which I use on a very regular basis) has been updated multiple times since November 1st and still shows no sign of supporting face unlock for making payments and sending money.
I was OK with the removal of the fingerprint scanner when I thought most apps would get on board with this new API that supports face unlock, but there’s clearly no rush to get everything working from the app developers, so it feels more like it will be months before support shows up. And I’m reminded of this senseless move every time I go to do anything money-related on my phone. I’m reminded of how much faster it would be if I had a fingerprint scanner and I’m reminded of how few times my fingerprint missed when unlocking my device. Face unlock, on the other hand, misses with decent frequency.
The whole thing is simply a mess, and with what I imagine are poor sales of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL at this point, I see little reason for developers to quickly hop on board with the entire face unlock effort at this point. From what I understand, the new BiometricPrompt API that needs to be adopted to make face unlock work is recommended by Google for app developers, but is far from required at this point. I’m unsure what the negative effect would be if Google put its foot down and forced this on developers, but they seem unwilling to make that stand at this point.
With face unlock tech clearly adding a decent dent to any hardware maker’s bottom line, I also find it hard to swallow that other phone manufacturers are going to implement anything similar any time soon. What this means is we’ll likely wade deep into 2020 with very little adoption of this new biometric standard and, buy extension, very few developers being concerned with making sure their apps work with it. Apple was able to make this transition seamless because it laid the proper groundwork before the iPhone X hit shelves. Touch ID and Face ID used the exact same underlying API, so developers had to do nearly nothing to ease their apps into supporting the new biometric ID.
Though Google has now made a unified API for biometric ID that includes both face unlock and fingerprint scanning, it seems incapable of forcing this new API on devleopers, so app makers don’t really have any reason to update at this point. It seems Google should have rolled out this API months in advance and simply didn’t.
Regardless of who’s at fault, we have an end product that is annoying to use and feels like a step in the wrong direction. The face unlock hardware makes the phone look odd (hello huge forehead), cost too much, and it isn’t providing a single thing my fingerprint wasn’t already doing quite well. I can only assume Google was deciding to just ape Apple’s iPhone X, XR, and 11 with face unlock, and I think it was the wrong move all around. No one was begging for fingerprint scanners to go away, and with each day that passes, I grow more and more irritated by this senseless move and the inability Google seems to have towards making it worth using.