Microsoft Finger Food

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Microsoft has released their latest set of hardware gimmicks for Christmas – fingerprint scanners.

Microsoft has released their latest set of hardware gimmicks for Christmas – fingerprint scanners. There’s a keyboard and mouse pack with scanner built-in to the keyboard. Or there’s a stand-alone scanner available. A wireless mouse and wired Fingerprint Reader pack will be available in January 2005.

It sounds like a leap forward right from Q’s labs in the James Bond films. Instead of typing in passwords you press your finger against a red glowing pane and you’re in!

But is it any good? In particular could it be useful for us MS Office users in our constant search for anything that will help us get the job done?


THE HARDWARE

The Fingerprint reader itself seems quite simple. An oval surface with a red glow underneath where you place your finger. It’s connected via the USB port. Windows XP will detect the new device and install the necessary software and drivers.

A CD is supplied but it’s better to get the latest version from the Microsoft website. This product is for Windows XP only and needs a spare USB port.


THE SOFTWARE

It’s really the software that makes or breaks the Fingerprint Reader. Microsoft has licensed the DigitalPersona Password Manager to work with their hardware.

Password Manager records images of various fingers (there’s a simple system to record as many fingertip images as you like) and links those images to a particular user.

In all cases the Password Manager is just like many other password management programs in the market. It records the text to be entered and where it goes on many web pages or dialog boxes. In response to a prompt the software inserts the necessary text.

In this case the prompt is a validated fingerprint scan. When asked for a password already recorded, you put a finger on the Reader, it authenticates your print then inserts the pre-defined text into the dialog or form on a web page.

So what makes this software so different to the many other programs out there? Beyond the Fingerprint Reader – nothing really. It’s just a gadget driven way to record passwords.

You do NOT lose the ability to enter passwords manually; this is just a different way of telling Windows what to insert and when. If you remove the Fingerprint Reader access to your computer and web sites is not impaired at all.

And you still have to remember or store your passwords for situations where the Fingerprint Reader isn’t available.

ENTERING WINDOWS

You can use the Fingerprint Reader to logon to Windows XP but only if you the computer is not part of a domain. Both Welcome Screen and the traditional Windows logon is supported though in the latter case you have to still press Ctrl+Alt+Del (if necessary) and sometimes enter your user name.

If you have Fast User Switching running in Windows XP you can use the Password Manager to switch users at the touch of the Reader. Some of the Microsoft marketing makes a big deal of this feature, but Fast User Switching is part of Windows XP and not an addition made by the Fingerprint Reader.


ENTERING PASSWORDS

The Fingerprint Reader can be used to store login details for web sites. When you get to a login page, press your finger on the red spot. Password Manager will try to work out what fields to complete and the OK / Submit button to send that information. You may have to fiddle with the setting a little to get them right – but it is very simple to see which fields will be used and what will be inserted.

On your return visits, just use your finger and the Password Manager will insert the name / password etc then virtually ‘click’ the OK button to tell the web page to proceed. A little toolip appears on the screen to remind you that Password Manager has details recorded for that page.

It’s a cute trick, but you can do the same thing with the other password utilities out there or it is built-in for Firefox users. The login details are entered automatically and all you have to do is click OK.

The difference is the Fingerprint Reader and the money you’ve spent.

There is a nice item on the Password Manager menu that appears from the system tray – a Quick Links menu will take you to any of the web pages you’re stored password details for.

FINGERPRINTS AND OFFICE

While Microsoft doesn’t promote it, the Password Manager can insert a password into some dialog boxes, not just web pages. But sadly not all the ones we tried.

We bought a Fingerprint Reader to try because we, any some readers who had written to us, were intrigued with the idea of unlocking documents with a finger scan.

Fingerprint Reader with Word 2003 will unlock a single protected document, or many documents but only if they all have the same password! When the password prompt appears you can save a password for later use on that dialog. But the system is essentially useless for unlocking documents because it only stores a single password for all locked documents. The password dialog is exactly the same for all locked documents; the title on the dialog doesn’t have the name of the document so Password Manager has no way to distinguish between documents.

In addition the fingerprint software would not work with the dialog to protect the document in the first place.

So Fingerprint Reader isn’t any help with Office and, to be fair, Microsoft isn’t promoting it that way. However we have seen some overzealous in-store salesmen overstating the abilities of the Fingerprint Reader, hence this review in Office Watch.

A TOY

Microsoft Legal put it like this:

” this device is not a security feature and is intended to be used for convenience only. “

In other words, it’s a toy. Perhaps a fun toy for gadget fiends or families. It might be a nice Christmas present for the computer nerd or connected family. But it’s not a new dawn for biometric security nor something that will ease the worry of any security consultant.

It’s possible some physically impaired people might get some use out of the Fingerprint Reader but it won’t replace the need to use a keyboard.

And it’s not something that will make life easier for Microsoft Office users – more’s the pity.

It’s a shame the Password Manager software wasn’t more adventurous in using the new device. For example, actions could have been linked to particular fingers. A middle finger scan could open Word or your browser. The little finger could shut down Windows. The thumb could also be assigned to an action. Adding the press of Alt, Ctrl, Shift etc with the other hand would give a wide range of shortcuts.

In addition it’s a nuisance that the Fingerprint Reader is essential to make the Password Manager operate. If the hardware is lost or broken, all the stored information in the software is unavailable. An alternative method of accessing your login data is essential – but missing at this stage.

 

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