It's not the first time Apple has sought a patent for payments technology on its iPhones, but an application published Jan. 16 is perhaps the most specific.

The patent application specifically discusses a "method to send payment data through various air interfaces without compromising user data," and it calls out Near Field Communication hardware as one of the key ingredients.

Though NFC chips are common in many other smartphones, Apple has never included the technology in its iPhone handsets. Mobile payment systems such as Isis and Google Wallet use NFC to make contactless payments at the point of sale.

Apple's patents and patent applications often describe inventive methods of incorporating payments into its product lines.

"Every time there is a development in technology, we see Apple right there with it, making patents that matter to its operating system," says industry analyst Todd Ablowitz, president of Centennial, Colo.-based Double Diamond Group, LLC. "But they are going to wait until the market is ready for them before they create a mobile payment system."

Apple did not respond to an inquiry by deadline.

In this latest patent application, Apple describes a system that would use a secure element in the handset to store payment card data. The secure element would move the data directly to a merchant's point of sale terminal through an NFC antenna.

In another process described in the application, NFC may be used only to start the transaction with an initial "bump" to the payment terminal. Afterwards, Bluetooth or WiFi would complete the process of moving encrypted data and what Apple describes as a "shared secret" that only the secure element and a backend processor would know.

Since NFC requires the user's phone to be within centimeters of the payment terminal, the process of handing off the transaction to a longer-range wireless signal would improve the customer experience, the application says.

Consumers could also use the payment system to make online purchases or in an offline retail environment through cooperation with a partner merchant acquirer or card network, Apple says.

Developers familiar with Apple's iOS7 operating system revealed in September that it would support the use of Bluetooth Low Energy, which is viewed as a long-range alternative to NFC.

Apple's version of this technology, called iBeacon, has a range of up to 50 meters. The company began placing iBeacon technology in its Apple stores in December.

The new patent is not the first time Apple has mentioned an NFC component, and the company has also shown an interest in cloud-based systems, Ablowitz says.

Nearly a year ago, Apple submitted a patent application for digital content gifting through NFC technology. That process would allow iPhone users to share content when in close proximity.

"If the market is ready, where technology is now, Apple wants to be ahead of the game and have a patent in place to protect them," Ablowitz says.

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