There are at least a half dozen different technologies and hundreds of vendors under the biometrics umbrella. Finger (or thumb) scanning accounts for the lion's share of sales-about 34 percent in 1999, according to consulting firm International Biometric Group (IBG)-and is expected to maintain its lead. However, none of the methods can be considered the optimal solution.
"If you already have a telephone in your hand, the most natural thing in the world is to use voice scanning for identification," says Samir Nanavati, partner with IBG. "If you're already typing at a keyboard, the unique pattern of how you type makes the most sense. And if you need an electronic signature anyway, why not do a biometric match for identification purposes?"
IBG showcases all the commercially available technologies at its Biometric Store in New York City and on its Web site, which also includes vendor profiles, performance results and links to providers.
Finger scanners are easy to use and can fit easily into peripheral devices, such as keyboards or Type II PC Cards. A good example of the latter is the Bio-Touch PC Card Fingerprint Reader/BioLogon software bundle sold on the Web site of market leader Identix for $179 (all prices street). The optical fingerprint reader pops out from the PC Card slot when you press it-just like the phone jack on some modem cards. Identix also sells the technology to Compaq, Dell and Toshiba, which offer it as an option for their portable PCs. Other types of readers made by Identix partners are found on its Web site.
Relatively low (and falling) retail prices mirror precipitous declines in manufacturing costs and the retail prices of most leading biometrics technologies. Retail prices have recently fallen below the important $100 threshold on a per-unit basis, says Wright. Identix used to sell the precursor to its current technology to government and law enforcement for a minimum of $40,000 per installation. Now the per-unit original equipment manufacturer price is less than $20.
Prices are at the point that BioLink vice president of business development Mike Thompson hopes to persuade major Web portals and financial institutions to buy his U-Match Biolink Mouse in bulk and give it to their best customers as a premium. "It costs about $160 to get a customer and $200 a year to keep him," reasons Thompson, who maintains that biometric security is a good way for e-tailers to bind customers to their sites. U-Match and most competitive finger scanners can already be configured to substitute for your usual Web site passwords, says Thompson.
Of course, that only provides convenience, not added security. Truly secure browsing requires an appropriate authentication and authorization server on the Web site, and those are only now hitting the market. BioLink is putting the finishing touches on its $3,500 BioVault biometric Web server, and Identix is about to begin marketing a Windows-compatible finger-scanning server.
According to Identix vice president Grant Evans, biometric servers could also benefit B2B e-commerce because, under the recently passed digital signature law, biometric authentication can be substituted for your actual signature or used with card e-sign technology to make a document legally binding.
Don't want to maintain a biometric server in-house? Vendors plan to provide their services for a monthly licensing fee. Some are building partnerships with providers of related technologies in order to offer a menu of services.
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at email@example.com.