One might justifiably suggest that biometrics, in a nutshell, is the technological equivalent of James Bond. Slick, sexy and always capable of drawing money. However, like Britain's greatest secret agent, biometrics has a history of flattering to deceive - and especially in that all important box office department.
Not that it hasn't had good reviews. The idea of using the unique aspects of a person's physiology - fingerprints, eyes, DNA - as ID verification mechanisms, is a popular one, and has seen biometrics widely vaunted as the next great leap in ID and authentication. It has also been heralded in some pretty influential quarters, with governments, corporate users, and the public alike - driven in the main by the apparently growing terrorist threat - all extolling its virtues.
However, it has also had its problems. An assortment of price versus performance, interoperability, data protection, privacy, and even civil rights issues have come to the fore. And progress has been further hampered by certain quarters of the industry questioning the value of biometrics over more traditional security methodologies.
Reliability has been queried too. Fingerprint and iris scanning technologies are still perceived as having relatively high error rates, while facial recognition is still evolving and remains dependent upon particular lighting conditions and certain facial positions and expressions.
Perhaps understandably in the circumstances described, recent market research figures hardly paint a picture of a technology that's setting the world on fire - although there have been some differences in analyst opinion concerning market size. While IDC recently forecast the market at $887m for 2005, Frost & Sullivan's prediction was rather more upbeat, suggesting growth to just over $2bn by 2006. Predictably, the International Biometrics Group ventured that the sector will reach around $4bn by the end of 2007.
In any event, biometrics clearly has some work to do before claiming its full double-O rating.
Some commentators, such as Steve Adair, ThinkPad brand manager at Lenovo UK, believe that existing biometric technologies still have an important part to play. Referencing the Gartner report "Passwords Are Near the Breaking Point", which claims that by 2007, 80 per cent of organisations will need to strengthen user authentication with alternative security methods, he cites fingerprint authentication for example as a compelling tool.
Others however, predict that the emergence of more strategic biometric technologies into the mainstream will be vital.
Mike Nelson, vice-president EMEA at Fujitsu Europe, said: "For low security, personal access, fingerprint sensors have their place, but they're generally not suitable for multiple person access; they're not very secure and consumer acceptance can be low - not least because they require physical contact, leading to hygiene concerns and system reliability problems."
Mindful of this, Nelson still believes that the use of biometric technology in mainstream applications is inevitable. "The technology is now coming of age and is no longer gimmicky or cumbersome to use. It's already used in some large niche markets - in particular airport security and banking applications and it is only a matter of time before biometrics provides an extra layer of security for everyday activities such as building access, systems log-in, travel, and banking services."
Colin Robbins, head of identities at Siemens Communications, agreed, but argued that for this to happen, biometrics must be viewed as more than just security.
"Today, biometrics tends to be thought of as a security protection mechanism, protecting access to buildings, computers and networks," he said. "This becomes hard to cost justify, in isolation. Successful deployments will consider biometrics as not just protection, but business enabling."
In other words, biometrics needs to not just protect, but in some way enable businesses to do things that they can't do currently.