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Imagining a Passbook-powered digital wallet

Marco Tabini | May 6, 2013
iOS 6's Passbook has had a slow start, but if Apple were to turn it into a real, two-way digital wallet that connects customers and retailers, it could be the beginning of something revolutionary.

Despite the somewhat mixed reception it got from users, I like iOS 6's Passbook feature. When it works, it's a great alternative to more-traditional counterparts: no more paper to carry around; no more rummaging through your inbox at the last minute, looking for an elusive boarding pass.

It really shines when it ties in well to your shopping experience, as is the case with Starbucks's excellent iOS app, which lets you purchase items and track your loyalty rewards just by waving your iPhone in front of a scanner.

Passbook's potential, however, remains largely untapped. Each merchant must implement it on a one-off basis, which reduces its convenience: You present your boarding pass or coupon or loyalty card, and the vendor decides what you can do with it and how, resulting in ad hoc systems that yield uneven results and may not work well with one another.

Apple has thus far given no sign that it plans to build a more comprehensive payment system around Passbook. Still, a "digital wallet" that allows users and merchants to exchange data in both directions could revolutionize the way we deal with our finances.

Lose the plastic

As Bill Gates once said, computers don't get thicker and heavier as they get stuffed with more data. He was talking about laptops, but the same concept applies to smartphones: The most obvious impact of a digital wallet would be to reduce the amount of plastic and paper you must carry with you, in order to have access to the information when you need it.

This isn't just a matter of convenience. Much of my interaction with my physical wallet consists of triaging its contents, in an ongoing effort to keep it at a manageable size; but inevitably I find myself ditching various that I don't need every day, but that might come in handy at some point.

On more than one occasion, this card-juggling trick has cost me money--for example when I leave gift cards at home and they eventually expire. Such consequences wouldn't ensue if I could safely store all of my data on my phone.

Stay safe

A side benefit of carrying fewer cards is that they're harder to lose. A misplaced or stolen card requires a call to the issuing bank (whose number is, of course, on the card itself), and it raises the possibility of having to dispute fraudulent charges and to submit a new credit card number to all of the companies that you have recurring charge arrangements with.

A single digital wallet can mitigate these problems. For one thing, it's much less likely that you are far less likely to lose your phone and not notice that fact for several days. In addition, you can protect an iOS device with a strong passcode, whereas the average credit card is just a signature and a four-digit PIN away from unauthorized use. Also, if someone steals your mobile handset, a quick visit to Find My iPhone makes wiping its data a breeze.

 

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