Face Time

Since the iPhone launched 10 years ago, 1,253,000,000 units have been sold.[1] Given that they don’t last forever, we can assume that only the most recent units sold are still in use. If we measure just the units sold in the last 3 years, the total is about 663 million. Rounding down, we can say that there are perhaps 650 million iPhones in use.

Repeating the exercise for the iPad but extending time in use to 4.5 years, gives a population or install base of about 240 million.

That’s a total base of 890 iOS million units, well below the 1 billion total “active devices” Apple reported in January 2016. The difference can be filled by Apple Watch, Apple TV, iPods and Macs.

Apple also reports that the iPhones get unlocked 80 times per day. That figure was also reported in early 2016. We don’t have a figure for the iPad but I’m going to take a guess of 15 unlocks per day on average. Feel free to argue about these figures in the comments below.

Now, if each of these iOS devices would be unlocked using a 4-digit PIN, the time to bring them into use would be about 2 seconds. Expanding to a 6-digit PIN would probably increase that to perhaps 2.5 seconds (accounting also for failures due to input errors.)

Moving to 6 digits, although more secure, would add friction and hence time to the unlock process. This reminds me of the story of Steve Jobs arguing that decreasing boot times for the Macintosh would save lives. I wondered what would be the savings in time for speeding up the unlock process.

It turns out that, based on the installed base numbers, moving to the more secure 6-digit code would add 2.8 billion hours to the total time to unlock the world’s iPhones and iPads. That’s 321,000 years of waiting added for every year of use.

Fortunately we got Touch ID to replace PIN entry and the time to unlock the iPhone/iPad has decreased to perhaps 1 second, saving 5.6 billion hours of unlock time vs. 4-digit PIN.

Now we have the prospect of Face ID which promises to be faster still. Of course, it won’t be available on all iOS devices for some time, but if it that base of 890 million iOS devices were to migrate to Face ID and if it took a mere 0.5 seconds to unlock, Face ID would save nearly 8.5 billion hours of time that otherwise would be spent typing unlock codes.[2]

That’s almost a million years.

That’s 12,500 lifetimes.

I’m glad to see Steve’s ideas continue to motivate Apple engineers.



  1. This includes the current quarter that ends in 4 days []
  2. Given this methodology one wonders how much time is spent using, rather than just unlocking, iOS devices. I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. []
  • klahanas

    I’m glad to see Steve’s ideas continue to motivate Apple engineers.”

    Good to know that Jobs is the father of biometrics…

    • billyJons21

      no one said anything even remotely like that.

      • klahanas

        All the saved time (and saved lives) the author credited to Jobs actually should be credited to biometric scientists and engineers. Jobs invented nothing, he marketed them. Some credit for that, but how about the sales and marketing department of the inventors that sold him on it?

        In sports, it’s generally understood that the players, not the broadcasters, got the credit.

      • handleym

        In movies, even idiots know that the director deserves a lot of credit.
        But what separates movie insiders from outsiders is that insiders know what the PRODUCER does, and know why it matters…

      • klahanas

        What a Producer offers is money and management. Oh, and they know who the players are.
        Yep, it’s Producers that sent us to the moon.

      • handleym

        Your ideology that a single “group” sent us to the moon (or achieved anything else large) is as childish as the fantasy that anything important was invented by one person.
        Large projects occur as the result of the efforts of a huge number of people, and claiming that one of those groups was “the” engine is as silly as arguing about whether the wheels or the engine are what make the car move.

        Note that no-one else is making the strawman claims you are attacking. What others are saying is that inspiration, planning, management, and similar tasks are required to make large projects happen. This is, whether you like it or not, true. Only you are claiming that it’s the STEM folks that deserve ALL the credit, and no-one else deserves a damn thing.

      • klahanas

        No sir, I’m saying that we have an abundance of people with managerial skills. They are important, but the actual hardware and software needed for a moonshot are far more important than the administrators. The STEM skills are more scarce. And if the subject is “Tech” it begins and ends with Tech, not merchandising.

      • tmay

        Strictly speaking, we got to the moon when we did because one guy decided to.

        That would be President Kennedy.

        The rest is just orchestrated teamwork; ours was better than the Soviets.

      • klahanas

        Yes, Kennedy showed vision and leadership, but more importantly…money and resources and society cultivated the scientists and engineers to do it.,

      • tmay

        Interestingly, I’m trained as an engineer as well, and I’ve also had an occupation where I was the “tip of the spear”. Never once did I think that I or my peers were more important to the success of our mission than all of the logistical support we had to make that possible. It was always a team effort.

        You seem to think otherwise.

      • klahanas

        So then, let me ask you…

        What was more difficult to replace in the mission, the technical or the logistical support? All are valuable, what was indispensable for the mission?

      • tmay

        You should ask why the Soviets lost the Moon race more than why we won it, but I’m guessing it wasn’t for the lack of technical support that the Soviets had.

        We had the best logistics system in the world, and engineers and scientists were just a part of the success of our Moon landings.

      • klahanas

        Couldn’t tell you. I know who was in space first, must have been their logistics. 😉

        Sarcasm aside, all work is honorable and valuable.

        Shockley invented the semiconductor, no argument could possibly be of more central importance in computer technology, even today. Shockley made Apple possible.

        When speaking Tech, it’s technologists, if Medicine it’s MDs and Researchers, Nurses, and providers, bridges, the engineers, the paper pushing Administrators as a support role in all cases.

      • tmay

        I’m just posting this because of Horace and his brilliant work on bikes, e-bikes and commutes, and I had an outlier experience “getting to work”.

        I was a Smokejumper for the Alaska Fire Service based at Ft. Wainwright for a few summers in the late ’80’s, and like our brethren in Canada and Russia (I don’t think there are any others today), we were delivered by a variety of medium sized aircraft to a fire.

        So, wheels up in 7 minutes, flights at 180 to 200 knots, and distances up to 300 or 400 miles, then parachute out with our basic gear. Depending on the aircraft, the load of jumpers could be 6 to 12, dropped in pairs as needed, plus necessary cargo like food, water, and tools dropped after we exited. Retrieval was by helicopter, boat, or vehicle depending on location.

        Arguably one of the best “last mile delivery services” on the planet, albeit Helitack Crews are more appropriate resources for shorter distances.

        You can understand why I’m enamored with that logistical system.

      • klahanas

        Now that’s impressive! I’m from a part of the world where your services are invaluable indeed.

        I certainly wasn’t putting down logistics, but was more toning down what I felt was credit given out of context.

      • Kizedek

        No-one is arguing that Steve Jobs was Craig Federighi and Jony Ive, and the whole rest of the team rolled into one person. What is in view is that he was far more hands-on and technical and generally “aware” in many areas than most other CEOs.

        If Jobs was just a managerial administrator that could be replaced, then Balmer would be quoted (for the right reasons), and the Surface would be the iPad, and there would be some kind of Windows phone, etc.

      • Luis Alejandro Masanti

        The most advanced ‘time saving’ device sat on a laboratory table saves almost no time.
        So, if Steve Jobs did put this ‘time saving’ element in 1 billion devices he helped to ‘save (real) time’ to many people… 1 second at the time.
        Steve Jobs was not the ‘father’ of biometrics. When he said what he was quoted to say, he was speaking of ‘software optimization.’ And not, he is either not the inventor of ‘software optimization.’
        Maybe we can call him a master of user interface oritntation… ‘make the user feel great.’

      • klahanas

        And if the ball player didn’t hit the home run, what would the announcer be announcing?
        I can agree with the visionary aspects of his skill set. I don’t want to be derogatory about this, but I’m countering over-crediting here. It’s a lot easier to say “Build me a gizmo” than to actually build the gizmo.

      • applecynic

        Isn’t Steve Jobs the coach?

      • klahanas

        Made. My. Day.
        The sincerest form of flattery, right there.
        Christopher Walken voice “That’s just….bananas, maybe Space Bananas”

        Folks applecynic is a name I use at MDN, it seems to have been misappropriated.

      • I did not credit it to Jobs. It would behoove you to read carefully.

      • klahanas

        Thank you for the interesting link and reply.
        I fail to see how time, dolled out in 10 second increments, with disparate geography, saves a significant number of lives due to boot up, but maybe a couple?

        Faster computers used by scientists and engineers save tons more lives. Most those computers aren’t PCs (still).

        Or was it more to do with his (and our) impatience and he was being a drama queen with the “saving lives”.

      • The link is embedded in the post. I encourage you to read it again.

      • klahanas

        “So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?”-Jobs

        imprecise language…, still Reality Distortion
        If he meant the “equivalent” of a dozen lives, it’s still nonsense, as if we live our lives in 10 second increments…

        Or…does it make sense to have a very fast computer that takes 10 seconds longer to boot? Of course it does. What are boot times of supercomputers? These save the “equivalent” of how many 10s of thousands of lives.

        Yes we all don’t want to wait those 10 seconds, especially me, but not to actually gain 10 seconds, rather to not have our thoughts interrupted or to just get on with the task at hand. Which is what he might have wanted to convey, but didn’t, not to me anyway.

        I admit I’m being quite literal, you have to be when dealing with a charismatic salesman like Jobs, otherwise you believe the BS.

      • 4thelulz

        Is “lives” then a bad translation? Jobs definitely says lifetimes in the post. Lives and lifetimes are incredibly different concepts.

  • Green-billed Magpie

    It doesn’t matter for the purposes of your thought experiment here, but I think you’ve underestimated the number of active iPhones. You’ve made a good assumption about the number of iphones that are someone’s personal primary device, but ignored the number that are handed down to kids, sold on to other users or used as a secondary device . I suspect the number of active older phones is not insignificant.

    • Luis Alejandro Masanti

      I felt the same as I read. But, to be kindle to Horace, kids are ‘loosing play time’ —I’m not telling that ‘kid’s play time’ is worthless— while Horace likes to put attention in ‘value aspects’ of the industry. (Now, we would have to check how many times do adults turn on the device to play…)

    • BMc

      I agree – not that it matters to his column and point though. There are stats out there showing a still reasonable number on iPhone 5s, and a few lower. Other analysts I follow would estimate that the size of the total iPhone user base (yes, including those hand-me-downs) is likely to be closer to 800M by end of this year. That is iPhone only. iPhones are lasting longer as well, I expect (vs. the early versions of original through 5).

      iPads are likely held even longer. When Apple announced the 1B iOS devices last year, the ATV and Apple Watch were likely rounding errors. Apple Watch as grown quite well since.

      Therefore, from Apple’s 1B active last year, my guess is that 1.2B is easily possible now. That is about half of Google Android.

  • Luis Alejandro Masanti

    You fooled me, Horace!
    When I saw the title I prepared my brain to read about the ‘FaceTime messaging app’!
    In the middle of the note I went back to the title and notice the ‘space’ between the words and I understood the ‘the time you face the phone’ interpretation,

    What I thanks Apple is that it gives us the ‘saved time.’
    Google, on the other hand, would introduce some ads in the time saved!

  • Mark

    Doesn’t your argument presuppose that because it is easier to unlock an iphone, the number of unlocks and time spent on the iphone will remain constant?

    I’m guessing that because it is easier to unlock our phones, people will unlock them more and thus, spend more time on them. This would eliminate the amount of time/lives saved.

    • Quite the opposite. The time spent using the product isn’t destructive but constructive. Time spent unlocking is destructive because it’s wasted cost of access to useful time.

      • Mark

        Understood. However, now you’re making another assumption, that all time spent on an iPhone/iPad is constructive and not destructive. I am not sure I disagree with you but just feel the need to point it out.

  • neutrino23

    Anecdotally, I’d say that both the iPhone and iPad are used longer than you suggest. As people buy new ones I see the older versions passed on to others with less stringent needs.