In payments, Apple giveth and Apple taketh away

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The latest news on Apple Pay only serves to reinforce that everything within Apple’s ecosystem is on its terms. For that reason, developers can never be complacent — if native iOS functionalities are core to a third party app’s business proposition, that provider is in for a rude awakening.

One WWDC blink-and-you’ll-miss-it announcement related to the upcoming watchOS4 enabling NFC connectivity to gym equipment for synchronization of workout details. While hardly a radical new feature for iOS users, this marks a somewhat larger shift in attitude from Apple to NFC, which Apple has considered so proprietary that it doesn't even provide an NFC on/off switch in the iPhone's settings.

An open standard on a closed platform

NFC has been around as an ISO standard since 2003 as an enabler of short range RFID connectivity between devices and readable tags. While it has found a home with the former through the support of Apple and Android’s mobile payments, the latter has effectively fallen by the wayside, particularly in the world of marketing and advertising where it is hard to compete with the cost and commonality of QR codes.

At first glance, it would appear that Apple’s new, less restrictive attitude to NFC could be a godsend to companies developing mobile wallets, but it makes sense to be highly cautious relating to Apple’s support of NFC, or indeed any third party standard.

Like the widely recognized Bluetooth and WiFi logos, the NFC Forum developed the ‘N-Mark’ logo as a means of showing compatibility and standardization between NFC enabled technology. Unfortunately, uptake and support of this mark has been far from universal, with payment networks and mobile wallets typically eschewing conformity for their own brand of ‘Pay’.

On the handset side of the mobile POS equation, Android devices visibly display the ‘N-Mark’ when NFC is turned on and list NFC among other wireless connectivity functions. By contrast, iPhones show no indication that NFC is on, or even exists within iOS. Given the only function of NFC on the iPhone to date is Apple Pay, there has been no need for end user education of interoperability, but it will be highly telling if NFC functionality on iOS is rebranded with a proprietary name to control third-party licensing.

The rest of the mobile wallet ecosystem

If NFC backers thought that Apple’s WWDC announcement amounted to tacit endorsement of NFC over other interface standards, this was shot down shortly thereafter by the announcement that Apple would provide native support for QR Code scanning. This was not a full blown endorsement of QR codes either since the scanning functionality can only be used for scanning codes into Apple’s passbook. Nonetheless, Apple made it clear that it will continue to support a directly competing standard to NFC, albeit on its own terms.

As a final example of Apple’s absolute control of its ecosystem and a cautionary tale to developers that treat any Apple functionality as a given, Apple iOS 11 will allow end users to have far greater control over the ability for third party apps to track their location. While most apps requiring geolocation information have provided iPhone owners with the option of granting access to location only while the app is running, some continue to track users while the app is in the background, notably Domino’s, Uber and Waze (owned by Google). This update takes this control out of the hands of app developers and puts the consumer back in charge.

Collectively these announcements articulate to the developer community that while Apple is open to enhancements and interaction with open standards, ultimately it calls the shots. Building a business dependent on Apple as the gatekeeper to core handset functionality is fraught with danger.

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Apple Pay NFC