Some Android Rivals Simply Can't Afford to Compete With Apple's Face ID

Just because some of the components aren't all that expensive doesn't mean implementing 3D facial recognition comes cheap. For example, the vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) that go into Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) TrueDepth camera system are only estimated to represent $4 to $5 worth of content in iPhone X, which doesn't seem too expensive. But that's just a small piece of the puzzle. The modules include other parts like optical filters and infrared cameras, which initially suffered from low yield rates, driving up average costs per unit.

Then there are all the costs associated with developing the sophisticated software that does the heavy lifting behind the scenes, and integrating that software with the hardware. It's a lot to keep up with if you're a competing Android vendor looking to offer 3D sensing. Faced with such an expensive proposition, some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are simply giving up on the idea.

Looking for an alternative

DIGITIMES reports that rivals like Huawei are instead looking to introduce in-display fingerprint sensors instead of pursuing 3D sensing. Apple had been rumored to be exploring in-display Touch ID, but hardware engineering chief Dan Riccio shot that notion down last year, saying the company "spent no time looking at fingerprints on the back or through the glass." Apple knew early on that it wanted to bet big on Face ID, which is precisely what it did.

The fingerprint sensors that some Android OEMs are now considering utilize Qualcomm technology and are expected to dramatically improve performance while enabling thinner form factors. Even though these newer sensors are also about three times as expensive as traditional fingerprint sensors, the costs are nowhere near what it would take to implement 3D sensing, which DIGITIMES estimates to be upwards of $60 per unit after factoring in software development and hardware/software integration.

With most Android phones selling for far less than an iPhone (usually $200 to $300), there's really no room in the bill of materials (BOM) to afford $60 per unit. Even flagship Android phones that sell for much higher could potentially have trouble recouping those costs, seeing as all evidence suggests that iPhone X demand is suffering due to the high price point.

All of this is before even acknowledging that Android OEMs probably can't even procure VCSEL supply until at least 2019, since Apple has locked down much of the industry's capacity, according to suppliers.

Samsung will follow

However, it does appear that archrival Samsung is exploring 3D sensing for next year's Galaxy S10. The Galaxy S9 that launched this month includes facial recognition, but still uses a 2D implementation that is not secure enough to be comparable to Apple's Face ID. Samsung is one of the few Android OEMs that has the scale, vertical integration, and brand presence in the premium segment of the smartphone market to potentially pull it off.

As for the rest of the Android camp, they better hope that 3D facial recognition doesn't become a must-have feature in the years ahead.

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Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of QCOM and has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.