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Apple Passbook card-'n'-ticket app paves way for iOS e-wallet

The barcode just won't die

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WWDC Apple's Passbook, announced at yesterday's developer conference as part of iOS 6, is clearly a step towards NFC payments, but even in its present form it has people pretty excited, so it's a shame that it won't work with the UK's biggest e-ticket deployment.

Passbook is like an address book for storing tokens and tickets, with associated machine-readable barcodes and geographic hotspots. The tickets are presented to the user with a consistent interface, and integrated into the lock screen for automatic display where needed, but Apple will only display static tickets: thus locking out the barcode-based e-tickets proving so popular on the UK train network.

Barcode ticketing is old news, and a handful of smartphone applications are already dispensing with paper to display the black-and-white codes on screen. Ticket gates in London's Kings Cross and Euston stations, along the Birmingham line, and elsewhere in the UK already feature integrated readers poised to scan smartphone screens.

But Masabi, which provides the technology for most of the UK train network, also needs to display animated tickets for when the inspector doesn't have a barcode reader handy, and it seems that Apple's API for interacting with the Passbook demands that tickets are static images delivered by URL, JSON or email.

In many instances that won't matter, but Masabi's CEO told us (before he knew about the limitation) that if the Passbook weren't able to display animations then they would stick with their own app and "leave Passbook to the airlines and the coffee shops".

That might change. It might prove practical to have a ticket animated in a dedicated application and replicated, in static form, in the Passbook: we'll have to see how the Apple APIs and usability issues pan out.

Location tracking tech

Companies that are confident they have a barcode reader at every point of interaction don't need such complexity, so Starbucks and United Airlines were featured during the demonstration, with the United app automatically changing the gate on the ticket in response to airport updates (something Masabi tells us it's working on for trains). The Starbucks loyalty card even pops up on the lock screen whenever one is walking past a Starbucks.

That location tracking is a real innovation, and probably the only part of Passbook which hasn't been seen elsewhere. But it's not Apple's job to do things which haven't been done before; Apple's skill lies in doing things better, and throwing enough marketing and brand value behind them so to make people wonder why no one else ever thought of it. Google's Wallet can do much the same stuff as Passbook, more securely and with NFC for pay-by-bonk too, but it's wedded to bonking with NFC while on-screen barcodes are exploding in usage. Expect to see revised APIs from Google, with display support, in the near future.

Not that barcodes will last forever. The next iPhone will surely have NFC built in – and integrated with Passbook as well as Apple's iTunes payment platform, allowing Cupertino to corner the market in coupons and payments, as well as cool. ®

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