Apple's decision to leave Near Field Communication payments technology out of its next iPhone might be seen as a huge misstep, as both Microsoft and Google have embraced the technology for their latest phones.
It is, of course, also a brilliant move on Apple's part, as it gives Apple time to evaluate even more consumer-friendly payments tech while giving mobile-phone owners the features they can make the most use of in today's market.
Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told reporters during a hands-on iPhone 5 session yesterday that Apple took a pass on NFC because the smartphone's Passbook software, which isn't exactly a payments app, provides "the kinds of things consumers need today" with its ability to display digital loyalty cards, passes and tickets.
Apple's decision is part of a telling trend: as much as mobile-wallet providers insist that loyalty and offer systems will drive use of mobile payments, loyalty services can easily exist on their own.
Google Inc. is another prominent example. Although Google announced its Google Offers system side-by-side with its Google Wallet, the company has lately found ways to separate the two systems, such as by incorporating Google Offers into the mobile version of Google Maps.
Because Apple has so many patents developed with NFC operating in a product called iWallet, there is no doubt Apple has studied the technology closely.
But it is also studying its competitors, and seeing more examples of the NFC wallet missing its potential. Google Motorola Mobility unit recently announced three new Android smartphone models with NFC chips, but none of them support Google Wallet.
PayPal, similarly, supports NFC in its mobile app but built its point of sale payment system in a way that does not rely on or even promote the use of NFC. Instead, PayPal plans to handle transactions over Discover's network.
The wide range of viewpoints and ongoing speculation about Apple's future role in payments is expected because mobile payment technology is in its "very early stages," says Gil Luria, analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities.
"Apple understands that it is too early to have an NFC-based mobile wallet," Luria says.
Mostly, Apple is not inclined “to experiment with products" by making them available to consumers, Luria says. "If you look at Google, they are OK with experimenting with products and seeing what sticks, but Apple is not," he adds.
Apple releases products when it is convinced they are ready to be "broadly consumed and provide a delighting experience" for consumers, Luria says.
Even before Apple announced its latest iPhone model, some felt the window of opportunity for NFC to become the dominant mobile payment technology might already be closing.
Cloud-based technology has the endorsement of PayPal and Square, both of which offer mobile wallets that rely on software for payment and authentication. PayPal's pact with Discover, and Square's recent involvement with Starbucks, show that major companies are taking notice of these systems and are willing to gamble on their success, Richard Oglesby, senior analyst and mobile pay expert with Boston-based Aite Group, said in a past interview.
"With those two deals, all of the sudden there are 7 million merchant locations accepting cloud-based wallets, whereas only 250,000 merchant locations are set up to accept NFC payments," Oglesby said.