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Apple Pay Is Promising, But It’s Not Here Yet

Many companies have tried to render your wallet obsolete. Will Apple be the first to do the job?

Apple Pay Is Promising, But It’s Not Here Yet
[Photo: Courtesy of Apple]

At its epic media event on September 9, Apple’s “One More Thing” was its first all-new piece of hardware since the iPad, the Apple Watch. But there’s a pretty decent chance that when Apple watchers look back at the event, the first thing they’ll remember is that it served as the launchpad for Apple Pay.

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Apple’s new payment system for the real world is certainly the most potentially epoch-shifting feature of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. But when I reviewed the phones, I couldn’t give it a try. It requires a software update which Apple plans to release in October. And though the company says that 220,000 retail outlets will soon be able to accept Apple Pay, none of them do just yet. For the time being, here’s a recap of how the technology will work.

Apple Pay calls on the 6 and 6 Plus’s new Near Field Communications (NFC), a technology that’s already commonplace in Android phones. (Both Apple Pay and NFC will be built into the Apple Watch as well when it arrives in 2015.) NFC, which is designed for data connections which are both wireless and secure, will let the new Apple devices exchange the necessary details with the contact-free payment terminals which are already in wide use.

Once your iPhone has the Apple Pay software update, you’ll be able to add American Express, MasterCard, and Visa cards to iOS’s Passbook app. Then when you’re in an establishment which accepts Apple Pay–including locations of chains such as Macys, McDonalds, Petco, Staples, Toys R Us, Walgreens, Whole Foods, and, in case you weren’t sure, the Apple Store–you can grasp your iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus with your finger or thumb against the Touch ID sensor and wave it at a wireless payment terminal. Voila–instant payment.

There are some advantages beyond convenience. Privacy, for one: Apple handles the transaction by using a one-time code rather than handing your personal info over to the merchant, and doesn’t store data except for recent purchases, which you can revisit in Passbook.

The basic idea here is nothing new. It’s just that nobody’s managed to implement it in a way that consumers care about. Google Wallet, for instance, is theoretically similar, but requires enough fiddling around that it’s no quicker than using plastic. And Softcard, a joint project by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, hasn’t yet gone much of anywhere–and just had to scrap its original brand, Isis, which it unfortunately happened to share with a bunch of terrorists.

Even if Apple nails the technology–and avoids any embarrassing security incidents–it’s going to require that the folks behind the counters understand what’s going on. (My attempts to use Google Wallet have sometimes been met with bemusement and/or exasperation.)

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Still, millions of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users are surely going to be curious enough about Apple Pay to give it a try. If it actually performs as advertised, they might keep on using it, and Apple will have a shot at revolutionizing another industry. Stay tuned

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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