Apple [AAPL] the iWallet, Passbook, iPhone and NFC: This never-ending tale wriggles into the spotlight once again, like a shy starlet presenting her first celebrity awards bash the latest news offers a glimpse at the company's long-planned adventure with a tech Cupertino claims isn't yet a household name.
[ABOVE: An Authentec image for one of its TouchChip products.]
Apple's $356 million acquisition of Authentec came after years of rumors claiming it had plans to deploy iDevices equipped with NFC support, though this wasn't included within iPhone 5.
Today we learn Authentec is selling its Embedded Security Solutions division to Inside Secure for around $48 million, prompting NFC World to speculate that Apple did indeed acquire Authentec earlier this year in order to secure that company's combined fingerprint and NFC identity recognition system.
ESS products are, "Used in hundreds of millions of mobile and networking products to ensure data privacy for businesses and individuals," the report explains. These include Android devices, which means sale of this division ameans Apple can't be accused of holding too much power in this sector of the emerging industry, though it does retain some unique technology.
"The company's smart sensors and identity management products have been withdrawn from the market but TouchChip products continue to be available — suggesting that Apple plans to retain ownership of, and make use of, the company's fingerprint sensors and identity management solutions in future devices."
It’s all fun and games, but to be blunt about things, NFC devices available so far haven't truly transformed consumer lives -- some might ask, what use is a cashless economy if no one's got any cash in the first place?
[ABOVE: SnipSnap is an iPhone app which can export printed coupons to Passbook.]
Is it safe?
NFC hasn't yet staked a place inside the transaction -- yes technologies do exist, they have a lot of support, but it's not yet widely used by the so-called man (or woman) in the street. For NFC to succeed it must get inside the transaction.
In response, Apple has introduced an iOS app called Passbook, which lets iPhone users carry vouchers, boarding passes, event tickets and more on their phone. In another incremental step toward something like payments, Apple has enabled use of Passbook for Apple Store vouchers; and the app was developed by a team that included the Apple's own NFC experts.
Passbook's interesting because what Apple is doing here is offering us a useful transaction-related app which makes the iPhone something customers will become increasingly used to using at point of sale.
Inclusion of support for boarding passes -- a feature that is being supported by airlines worldwide -- also strays into a territory that many see as a perfect fit for NFC-authentication technologies tomorrow.
It's inarguable that Apple's putting building blocks in place that will help its users become accustomed to using their iPhone for payment-related tasks, building a sense of familiarity in such things. (Various surveys have shown consumers remain resistant to the idea of using their mobiles as a wallet).
That consumer reticence is a big problem for NFC. You don't sell people what you think they should have, the secret is to offer people things they didn't know they wanted. Steve Jobs knew this, and there's no reason the passing of that modern day Da Vinci means the spark of human consciousness no longer casts light on tomorrow's world.
Success in product design isn't won through saying: "You should have this because it is good for you," no, it is granted by offering up solutions consumers regard as things they cannot do without. Where the puck "is going", in other words -- though sometime you need to move that puck along.
Speaking to AllThingsD, Apple's marketing man, Phil Schiller, put it this way:
"It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem, Schiller said. “Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today.”"
It also gets us thinking about the kind of things we might want tomorrow, though it's not tomorrow yet.
But Apple's moves to divest Authentec of those technologies it doesn't intend retaining complete control across hints that it has a future for rock-solid authentication technologies and NFC -- though there are also other options. One way or another, though, that's got to lead to an extension of what it offers today.
Your iPhone may not be your iWallet right now, but Passbook's on course to become something you might use every day. Using Passbook as its guide, if it seems people may in future want to use their phones to pay for things in their local convenience store, then Apple's in a cat bird seat position to deliver just that.
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