Trying to figure out Apple Inc.'s intentions with mobile payments based on the technology giant's patent approvals is akin to assembling Ikea furniture without instructions. Some parts clearly fit, others not so much.
The iPhone maker has applied for numerous patents over the years that spell out starkly different approaches to using its smartphone to make payments in retail stores. The few mobile payment initiatives Apple has announced, such as using iTunes billing for its App store and the Passbook digital card case for its next iPhone, fall short of what banks and other stakeholders expect in a mobile payment system.
Apple recently landed a patent for a shopping application patent that involves Near Field Communication. Though this could be used for purchases, PatentlyApple.com's summary of the patent indicates it could also be used to scan items for pricing or to create a shopping list.
This new patent may be an indication that Apple is ready to speed up its NFC payment plans — but its public announcements may indicate otherwise.
Apple two months ago announced the Passbook application for storing cards and passes in one place. At the time, Apple did not say — or even imply — that Passbook would have an NFC capability for payments or other uses.
Apple also received a recent patent for a theoretical iTravel application, a service for NFC-enabled phones that allows consumers to use their phones to buy airline tickets, and go through check-in, baggage claim and boarding.
But Apple's patents rarely provide clarity on the company's plans. Many of Apple's patents have been in place for years without being used as part of a product the company brought to market. And, as is typical for the tight-lipped technology giant, Apple executives would not respond to inquiries this week about what consumers can expect in the next iPhone model, which the company is expected to reveal next month.
Those who follow Apple closely say an NFC chip could differentiate the next iPhone from its predecessors. Such technology would also quiet detractors who were concerned that the new phone wouldn't offer much incentive to upgrade from last year's iPhone 4S.
Even so, an insider told The Wall Street Journal last month that Apple remains reluctant to commit to any specific technology or facet of mobile payments.
The latest news nevertheless shows that Apple is clearly staking out its position on NFC, while remaining less clear on the timing of any NFC product, says industry analyst Todd Ablowitz, president of Centennial, Colo.-based Double Diamond Group, LLC.
"Apple is establishing some unique NFC facets for its future deployment, but also protecting themselves with patents so they don't get sued when it is time to roll it out," Ablowitz says.
As for a prediction on NFC in the next iPhone, Ablowitz says Apple may feel it is ready now, or could wait another year. "I could see it going either way, and either way is viable," he says.
Meanwhile, rival wallets are gaining momentum. Google last week redesigned its mobile wallet to make it easier for consumers to enroll credit and debit cards. Square this week received a $25 million investment from Starbucks Corp. and a commitment from the coffee chain to use its Pay with Square mobile wallet in stores.
Apple "will be keeping an eye on something like Pay with Square as an example of something good and reliable for the customer experience," Ablowitz says.