If Apple Inc. doesn’t include Near Field Communication technology in its next generation of iPhone this fall, the company sure has a stockpile of NFC patents to use at a later date.
The will-they-or-won’t-they speculation regarding Apple’s intentions for NFC or some other payments-market splash has been well-documented. But speculation about the sort of computer chip-based NFC technology Apple has been developing no longer is necessary.
Apple received a patent July 11 for iTravel, a service for NFC-enabled mobile phones that enables consumers to use their phone to buy an airline ticket and to go through check-in, baggage check and plane boarding, among other travel-related tasks.
Because Apple executives mentioned the company’s new Passbook would include travel services for obtaining boarding passes and express check-in, it appears they were referring to the iTravel application. The iTravel patent naturally fuels speculation that the upcoming iPhone 5 will have NFC capabilities.
But some observers say what Apple has up its sleeve, no matter how apparent it seems, is unpredictable.
“I think iTravel points toward NFC for Apple, but I don’t think we can be certain that it does,” says industry analyst Todd Ablowitz, president of Centennial, Colo.-based Double Diamond Group, LLC.
There are as many indications that Apple may lean in another direction rather than fully embracing NFC, Ablowitz notes. “I’m not going to contradict that about Apple, but I would say that NFC is the best-use case in payments when it is used properly,” he suggests.
Despite the “enormous amount of noise” in the industry regarding what Apple’s next moves might be, Ablowitz contends it is difficult to imagine the company would not introduce consumers to a tie-in to all of its products for payments, access to all accounts, and various NFC tasks such as check-in at an airport.
It may not represent a big overall payments-industry splash, but Apple is banking on iPhone users to find iTravel useful because they also may use it for car rentals and access to trains, buses and hotel check-in. Basically, consumers can complete any aspect of travel ticket purchasing, document filing or check-in paperwork with iTravel through an iPhone and Passbook, Apple says in the patent document.
Apple’s patent describes the iTravel service as turning an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into an unmanned, automated airport-ticketing and baggage-counter kiosk that introduces the concept of an automated security checking process.
The iTravel check-in system also will work with desktop Macs, according to the patentlyApple.com website. The application would store ticketing and identification information on the device and transmit it, via NFC, to another electronic device, such as an NFC reader at an airport.
Travelers using the application could process themselves through the security clearance system and check themselves in at the boarding gate.
Apple first published its iTravel concept for patent in April 2010, but it had been working on the application since 2008, patentlyApple reported.
Consumer acceptance of iTravel relies on the airline and hotel industries to begin shifting to NFC readers to accept any new systems. However, Apple has acknowledged that additional retrieval and security methods may be needed for scanning passports and driver’s licenses loaded into the phones through the travel-management portion of the iTravel application.