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Wednesday, September 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Fingerprint recognition a first in biometric field for Microsoft

By Kim Peterson
Seattle Times technology reporter

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tom Gibbons, general manager of Microsoft's hardware group, holds the new keyboard with the fingerprint-identification slot at left, in red. Microsoft is introducing three new products today with fingerprint readers.
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Microsoft is announcing today its first hardware products to use fingerprint recognition, a technology that has made inroads in the office environment but is barely existent for home users.

Three new company products will use fingerprint readers to log on a user to a computer and store passwords used at Web sites. They were developed by Microsoft's hardware group, a small team in Redmond that focuses on mice and keyboards, not software.

The products are a sign of the Microsoft's hardware group's evolution. Years ago, computer hardware meant mice and keyboards in shades of beige, dark beige and light beige, said Tom Gibbons, general manager of the group.

Now, two generations of people have used the computer a lot, he said, and their tastes and interests in hardware have become more sophisticated.

"Computer users actually have become quite capable, whether they feel like they are or not," he said.

In developing the fingerprint readers, Microsoft found users had an average of 15 user-name and password combinations as they navigate the Web. It's not easy to remember all of those, and often users end up taping those passwords to their computer monitor, or storing them on a file on the desktop.

The new readers still require the typing in of user names and passwords once for each Web site. After that, those fields will automatically fill in when a user returns to those sites and places a finger on the reader. The devices can have multiple users and can store as many passwords as can fit on a computer's hard drive.

"This just releases a lot of the mental load," said Abid Saifee, a product manager for the keyboard lines. Two of the products — a standalone fingerprint reader and a keyboard with a reader — are expected to go on sale in mid-October. A wireless mouse with a fingerprint reader has been delayed until early next year.

The technology is not new. Sony Electronics began selling a similar product in February called the Puppy Fingerprint Identity Token, which it said took more than eight years of research and development.

In addition to Web-site logins, the token can store documents and allows the user to sign documents with a digital certificate. It costs $170, compared with the $55 to $109 price tag on Microsoft's fingerprint products.

Fingerprint recognition, which falls under a technology called biometrics, has been used for years in the corporate environment. Some companies use the technology to allow employees access into certain offices, for example, or to log on to computers.
 
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One analyst said yesterday that while Microsoft's fingerprint-recognition line is helpful for managing passwords, it doesn't make a computer more secure.

"There are a lot of things that you log on to every day where this could be very convenient," said Crawford Del Prete, an IDC analyst in the communication and hardware-research division who was briefed by Microsoft on the new products. "Microsoft's biggest challenge will be reaching those people and communicating this as a convenience device as opposed to a safety device."

Del Prete said basic security rules should be followed when it comes to passwords: Change them often, use passwords with numbers and letters in them, and don't use obvious words like a pet's name or a mother's maiden name.

"Once you've done that, you still have to type in all those passwords all over the place," he said. "This is a way to easily manage them."

Microsoft is also announcing today other keyboards, as well as an optical mouse that can be used wirelessly with notebook computers. The mouse can work up to 3 feet away from its receiver, which plugs into the computer, and can work for three months on one battery, Microsoft said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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