It's a glorious day at my home in South Carolina, with just a hint of fall coolness to the air, and blue skies with only a few wispy clouds. It is also time for one of the most hotly anticipated technologies of the past few years to finally make its way into the hands of consumers in the form of Apple Pay, the technology giant's first foray into a comprehensive mobile wallet.
If you're unfamiliar with the technology, Apple allows you to enroll standard credit cards from the major banks into its Passbook application, and then pay at participating retailers using Near Field Communications (NFC) short-range radio technology. Apple is not the first company to employ NFC, nor is it the first to bring a digital wallet to mobile devices. Google announced its Google Wallet technology over three years ago, yet failed to capture much interest beyond the initial hoopla. As with all things Apple, prognosticators and pundits have suggested that Apple Pay could completely revolutionize mobile payments, or be yet another flop in the long line of failed mobile payment solutions. After diligently waiting for Apple to release the iOS 8.1 update required to enable Apple Pay, I updated my iPhone 6 and decided to see how all the theory and hype translate into an actual purchase experience.
The process of adding a new card is relatively easy, although not without a few bumps in the road. I was easily able to add the American Express card I use for iTunes to my Apple Pay wallet, and the Passbook application even provided an accurate image of the card, right down to the "Business" logo on the side of the card, a feature that should make it easy to keep track of cards.
Things were less user friendly when I attempted to enroll two Chase cards, supposedly a launch partner for Apple Pay. Passbook quickly and flawlessly captured the information from my Chase Ink Business card using the iPhone camera, yet failed to validate the card, saying that it was not yet accepted. A Chase Sapphire card failed the camera-driven capture, but successfully enrolled after manually entering the information from the card and sending a verification text message. Each card provider seems to have their own terms and conditions and verification procedures, requiring the usual display of multi-page terms and conditions that only a lawyer could love for each and every card enrolled.
Payment is obviously where the rubber meets the road for any mobile wallet, and with a Starbucks close by, I hopped on my bicycle for a quick ride for an iced coffee and hopefully a glimpse of the future of mobile payments. For all Apple's vaunted usability, I was unable to immediately figure out how to prepare my phone for payment upon arriving at Starbucks. My iPhone's lock screen helpfully showed a Starbucks logo, however, that launched the Starbucks app rather than Apple Pay. After ordering, in a move that couldn't have been scripted any better, I asked the clerk if I could pay with Apple Pay. He confidently responded that "We no longer have the apple pie, would you like something else?"
I failed to explain myself, and didn't see a readily apparent credit card terminal that looked NFC-ready, so I can only assume that "launch partner" is a fungible term, and this particular Starbucks, in an affluent suburb of Charlotte, NC, was not yet ready for Apple Pay, or had failed to train its staff. Fully caffeinated and still resolving to use Apple Pay, I headed to a local Panera Bread.
This particular retailer had some point of sale terminals sporting signage for mobile pay, and the clerk switched registers to accommodate me after I explained I wanted to pay with my phone. Unlike other Passbook applications that are invoked based on where the user is located, I had to open Passbook and tap on the image of the card I wanted to pay with. Again, this was not readily apparent, and the only clue was a brief introductory video embedded in Passbook that showed a large image of a credit card. My cookie rung up and Passbook open and my AMEX tapped, I placed my phone next to the credit card terminal. A beep and finger print scan later, and my transaction was complete. Passbook soon showed the vendor and transaction total, albeit without receipt details, and my inaugural contactless transaction was complete.
Is this the future?
Like most new technologies, it's too early to make a call on the future of Apple Pay, or smartphone-based mobile wallets in general. My initial experience was lackluster; for an app and service that purport to be easier than a credit card, forcing the consumer through a complex decision tree of whether or not the retailer supports Apple Pay, and whether its employees and technology are actually capable of accepting the payment method, is far more complex than pulling out plastic and swiping.
Even at the Panera Bread store where Apple Pay was fully enabled and worked perfectly, it's unclear whether a consumer would save any time over paying with a traditional credit card. Apple Pay is far from replacing the physical wallet, and requires a more complex mental process than pulling out a credit card that's effectively guaranteed to work the world over. Furthermore, there was no perceivable benefit to Apple Pay beyond the novelty. My Panera Bread loyalty card was not automatically provided to the vendor, nor do I receive any additional consumer protections or perks by virtue of using Apple Pay. Merchants and issuing banks are less exposed to credit card fraud using Apple Pay; however, I seriously doubt the average consumer has much sympathy for these entities or will go out of their way to protect the likes of Visa and Mastercard.
Most new technologies struggle out of the gate, and Apple has demonstrated an ability to corral disparate interests in a way no company has been able to do on the mobile payment front. The future also looks intriguing; while Apple Pay provides little benefit over my credit card, if it could start my car or provision a hotel key without waiting in the check-in line, it provides a legitimate consumer benefit. In the immediate term, there's little consumer benefit over plastic. Combine this with a limited and inconsistent set of launch partners, and Apple Pay is still a ways away from revolutionizing mobile payment today, but could start making headway as the technology moves beyond replicating the functionality of the credit cards I carry today.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.