As of iOS 14.5, if the iPhone detects you are wearing a mask, you can use your unlocked Apple Watch as the identity key to let you in to your phone. Even for a first beta, it works really well. It’s fast. Written down, it sounds analogous to the macOS feature, but it feels very different when you try it.
Unlocking your Mac with your watch is comparatively sluggish. I guess this because the Watch is always passively ‘connected’ to its paired iPhone when in Bluetooth range, whereas when the Mac login screen wants to authenticate, it is searching for the user’s nearby Watch afresh each time. Moreover, the iPhone benefits from iOS’s slick lock screen transitions that guide the user smoothly through the unlocking process and the nice animations help to mask over some of the wait period.
I can only assume this has been on the cards ever since the pandemic reared its head. In iOS 13.5 last year, they rushed out what they could to improve the Face ID experience in the context of the pandemic. Many months later, they now have had the time to achieve a more sophisticated implementation of that goal, and that’s what we are seeing in iOS 14.5.
Some of the community reaction to this feature appearing in the beta can be summed up as follows: this means the iPhone 13 will not sport a fingerprint sensor, as Apple is resorting to fix the mask problem through software. Personally, I can’t make that connection.
The iPhone 13 feature set is independent to the needs of the current iOS user base. Even if you assume that Apple has always planned for this year’s iPhone to have Touch ID, they couldn’t not do this in the meantime once COVID hit. Apple has hundreds of millions of active Face ID-only phones out in the world to support. Plus, it will sell hundreds of millions of Face ID-only phones in the months leading up to this fall’s iPhone season, and hundreds of millions more for several years after that. (And not everyone has a Watch, of course.)