Say what you will about Apple Inc., but the computer technology giant knows how to create a buzz within the payments industry.
Leading into Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference, starting Monday in San Francisco, a patent application surfaced that provides fresh details on Apple's approach to mobile payments.
The patent application covers just about every emerging payments technology virtual currency and digital wallet capabilities, cloud-based money storage, payments through iPhone, money credits for viewing TV ads, and Near Field Communication for wireless payments at the point of sale.
Apple has filed other patent applications for NFC and payments technology over the years, so this week's speculation has a familiar ring to it.
For its WWDC event, Apple is rumored to be planning a substantial change to the design philosophy of its mobile software as part of its iOS 7 operating system. The company is expected to move away from skeuomorphic design, wherein the software mimics the appearance of the physical-world items it is meant to replace.
The redesign may affect the look and feel of Passbook, Apple's wallet for other mobile payment apps. Right down to its name, Passbook invokes the image of a physical wallet holding an assortment of payment cards and event tickets.
In its most recent patent application, Apple envisions a system that provides credits, vouchers or coupons as rewards for certain activity. Consumers would obtain tokens when watching TV advertisements, for example. Merchants or sponsors in the system could assign tokens, or virtual coupons, to consumers for any product or service they are promoting.
From a payments industry point of view, Apple has allowed companies like PayPal, Google, Isis and the card networks to introduce the first major mobile payments products and, essentially, figure out what works and what doesn't.
"Apple is going to enter each and every market they want to enter, at the time and place of their choosing," says industry analyst Todd Ablowitz, president of Centennial, Colo.-based Double Diamond Group, LLC.
Apple's patent applications are rarely tied to specific timing of actual product offerings, Ablowitz says. Still, Apple sits in a position that will allow it to become a more aggressive payments player at any time, he adds.
"I am quite convinced that Apple will involve itself in payments in the future, but they really already do," Ablowitz says. "Apple's iTunes wallet is one of the most prolific out there."
Apple's iTunes digital media store already has access to users' credit and debit card accounts for purchasing a wide range of content, including music and apps. Apple also offers gift cards to use within iTunes and at its retail stores.
"Apple will do more, but they just aren't going to do everything tomorrow," Ablowitz adds. "And they are not going to suddenly embrace NFC just to create the mobile wallet of two years ago."
Gil Luria, analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities, agrees that Apple is not likely to reveal a fully developed iWallet at its conference.
"It's possible there would be some discussion about aspects of the iWallet, or enhancements to Passbook at the conference," Luria says.
It seems inevitable that Apple will launch a mobile wallet as a comprehensive payments tool in the future, but the company will do it "when it is good and ready," Luria says.
In the meantime, Apple is likely monitoring consumer and retailer engagement in the various mobile wallets in use today, Luria says.
In what could be a good-news, bad-news scenario for Apple, Luria says retailers don't appear ready to commit exclusively to any specific wallet provider or technology.
Though Apple's Passbook application serves some functions of a mobile wallet, Apple surprised some by not including an NFC chip when it launched Passbook as part of the iPhone 5.
Those focusing on payments have to remember that Apple has various other technologies brewing, including the potential creation of iRadio, a streaming radio service.
Apple did not respond to inquiries prior to deadline.