Speculating about the role Apple Inc. ultimately will seek to play in payments has become a significant spectator sport for industry analysts.

Each year, guesswork unfolds on what plans the secretive Cupertino, Calif.-based computer-technology giant intends to announce to shake up the way people pay for goods and services. But an announcement that places Apple among payments leaders has yet to materialize.

Which, of course, leads to more speculation and, in some cases, distinct disagreements about what Apple should or shouldn’t do. All of the rhetoric is heightened by the fact that Apple has a patent for a Near Field Communication facet of its future iWallet approved in March (see story). In fact, Apple has been getting patents approved for the iWallet, dubbed by patentlyapple.com as “the one that will rule the world,” since May 2010.

But late last year, the company fooled those expecting an NFC chip in the iPhone 4S, though Apple has received various patents related to NFC, presumably as part of future iPhones (see story).

And now a retail industry analyst’s reasoning that Apple may lean toward Bluetooth 4.0 technology for its iWallet instead of NFC has ignited the latest Apple hub-hub among payments analysts and bloggers.

Pablo Saez Gil of ResearchFarm speculates Apple has done nothing, other than secure patents, to indicate its interest in NFC, a technology he believes possibly has hit its high-water mark and could begin to see industry interest wane as a mobile-payments technology. Instead, Apple could be far more interested in a cloud-based approach, where it could create a software application that enables Bluetooth technology to support transactions but rely on the cloud for data storage and payment-gateway entry, he asserted in a “Future of Mobile Payments 2012” report for ResearchFarm in late April.

In fact, Apple already has incorporated Bluetooth Low Energy technology into its new iPad and iPhone 4S products, with upgrades available for older products, Gil stated.

Apple could eliminate the need for NFC, cash registers or payment cards, which could be music to merchants’ ears as they contemplate EMV hardware upgrades or new equipment in the U.S. And considering Apple retail outlets already operate in a mobile-payment environment lacking traditional payment terminals, it is not a far-fetched theory.

Mostly, Gil embraces the premise that Bluetooth Low Energy allows low-consumption computer chips to act passively in the form of stickers, similar to NFC tags and devices that automatically connect and transfer information.

Yet others see folly in Gil’s viewpoints, saying Apple executives surely have to notice that millions of NFC-enabled phones are entering the marketplace, not more than a year after some of the first such devices first became available.

In other words, the momentum appears to be on NFC’s side.

No merchants accept Bluetooth payments, yet nearly 500,000 retail locations are expected to be able to accept NFC payments in the U.S. alone this year, argues Bluetooth naysayer Einar Rosenberg, the chief executive officer at Narian Technologies, in a May 24 MobilePaymentsToday blog.

And yet others, such as Richard Oglesby, senior analyst and mobile-payment expert with Boston-based Aite Group, sense that Apple has no interest in immediately jumping in with a new payment method.

Instead, the company more likely will follow its proven business practice of taking its time to develop products such as the iWallet until they know consumers will find them useful, Oglesby suggests.

Apple products such as iPads and iPhones are becoming more prominent as point-of-sale devices for cloud-based mobile payments, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the company will rush to create software applications that trigger the dawn of a new payments system, Oglesby notes.

“I don’t see them as active in the payments space, other than as being a hardware provider,” Oglesby contends. “They are a secretive company, so I certainly don’t have any inside sources, but it’s just my overall feeling that if the infrastructure is not in place for Apple at this time, they will just wait.”

In addition, Apple’s core computer-technology business is growing and active, he says. Thus, company officials would be cautious about trying to be a payments leader because that possibly could dilute company earnings, Oglesby suggests.

“But they would be interested in payments as part of a greater product suite for Apple,” he adds.

Gil Luria, an analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities, aligns himself with those who believe Apple is likely to make a payments move with the iPhone 5S that some believe will launch this fall.

“My sense is that this time Apple will include the iWallet in the i5S generation,” Luria tells PaymentsSource.

As with other Apple products, the iWallet most likely “will be a very compelling product,” Luria suggests.

As for the debate of Bluetooth versus NFC, Luria figures Apple will find a place for both technologies in its iWallet and other products.

“This is not an either-or case,” Luria says of Apple’s options. “I believe they will incorporate NFC because it is a powerful payments technology, and it has strong support in the industry,” he adds.

There is no reason for Apple to diss NFC, Luria contends. If the company doesn’t include NFC capabilities in the first generation of the iWallet, it would likely include it in future generations, he adds.

In addition, Apple is likely to leverage specific applications for the use of Bluetooth technology in payments, Luria notes.

Apple did not respond to a PaymentsSource request for comment.

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