Industry News

Sparks fly over Apple mobile payment patent

In an apparent reversal that immediately led to an explosion of commentary in mobile tech circles, a patent filing by Apple published on Thursday suggests the company may equip its iPhones with near-field communication (NFC) capabilities.

The patent application, which was first uncovered by Apple-centric site 9to5mac.com and which is entitled “Method to send payment data through various air interfaces without compromising user data,” raises other questions as well.

apple-patent

According to Apple’s request, the technology involves using several different kinds of wireless protocols simultaneously to create a novel and secure form of mobile payment. After being initiated by a “first secure link” – possibly by NFC – with a point of sale (POS) device, the transaction would be completed by a second wireless protocol, presumably Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, both of which offer more bandwidth than NFC, and don’t require the immediate physical proximity of NFC. Meanwhile, the Bluetooth standard is what Apple used for its “iBeacon” micro-location system, which allows shoppers to be sent notifications. In addition to being rolled out in some of its own branded stores, iBeacon has been implemented in several branches of leading US department store chain Macy’s, and has been eyed for use in stadiums by Major League Baseball.

In terms of security, the application involves a “secure element” that generates an alias for customer account information and which is communicated to the server along with a crypto key. Apple’s vision also calls for bypassing the mobile device’s application processor, to avoid “rogue apps” intercepting customer data.

The most intriguing aspect of the filing is the inclusion of NFC, which Apple had famously “dissed” by not supporting it in recent versions of the iPhone, and which Cellum and other key players in the mobile payments space have seen as a technology that has generally failed to live up to its hype. (Click here for a more in-depth look at questions surrounding NFC we published last October.)

While it is not certain that the payment method would begin with an NFC “bump” it seems unlikely that they would have included NFC so prominently without thinking it has some role to play. That said, 9to5Mac and some others have pointed out that Apple may just be keeping its options open. Everyone else should probably, too.