Apple executives have started talking to high-end retailers to gauge their interest in a mobile payments service, the Apple news site 9to5Mac reports.
Apple has approached retailers to get feedback about the challenges of building a single payments service for various stores with different payment and transaction methods and company practices, the report says, citing an anonymous source with "direct knowledge of the talks."
It is clear that any service in which Apple engages would operate through Apple devices and be tied in to the company's approximately 800 million iTunes accounts. Apple CEO Tim Cook has called his company's iTunes user count "a staggering number," and most accounts are linked to a credit card.
That database would instantly make Apple the most significant player in mobile payments because it would provide millions of "instant wallet users" able to pay through an iTunes account, says Mark Ranta, senior solutions consultant at ACI Worldwide, in an e-mailed statement.
"Apple has played its cards perfectly on this sitting on the sidelines during the 'bleeding edge' adopters stage was genius," Ranta says.
The company has essentially applied the same strategy as it did for smartphones and MP3 players in evaluating what others were doing before putting a product on market, he adds.
"iWallet could be the next big thing for them since they own the mobile market today, Ranta says.
Apple has been preparing its own retail stores for EMV chip-based card payments as well as Near Field Communication payments, so the company could share its learnings with other retailers.
The company has also been a supporter of the Bluetooth Low Energy wireless technology through a product it calls iBeacon, which detects a user's phone when that user enters a certain part of a store.
In addition, Apple is reportedly working with China UnionPay to establish an NFC mobile payment system in China.
Whatever Apple is cooking up, the Cupertino, Calif., company is taking its payments prospects seriously. In January, it gave online business director Jennifer Bailey the assignment to build a payments business at Apple, and she has been reportedly interviewing candidates with payments expertise.
Although Apple has not commented publicly about its plans, it may reveal something at its Worldwide Developers Conference, which begins June 2.