Should you or shouldn't you expect NFC in the iPhone 5?
Yesterday, we broke down the engineering reasons why you shouldn't be expecting NFC to be part of the iPhone 5, but we have a bit more Appley reason why you might not want to expect to see NFC in Apple's next-gen device. Apple has been quiet about the whole thing, which we fully understand, because Apple has no reason to announce anything before the big iPhone 5 reveal that is expected in just over 2 weeks. But, inquiring minds want to know, and so far the evidence is inconclusive.
As we've seen already, there was no mobile payment system announced as part of the Passbook app during the iOS 6 unveiling. But, that doesn't really give us much information, because it seems obvious that Apple wouldn't show off any mobile payment system before it has announced a device with the hardware capable of such transactions. It is definitely possible that Apple held back the actual mobile payment functionality of Passbook, and is going to show it off with the next iPhone.
There have been leaks of what we assume are iPhone 5 parts, and on one hand it looks as though there could be a spot for an NFC chip, but the same piece that could be a spot for an NFC chip could very well be for the in-cell touchscreen controller. We have seen patents from Apple that show that the company has definitely been working on the GUI for a mobile payment app for at least 3 years now, although, once again that doesn't prove that the system will be part of the next iPhone.
But, aside from all of that conflicting evidence, and all of the rumors, we think that there is really just one question that needs to be answered which is a key to whether or not the iPhone will have NFC and mobile payments: Is the NFC infrastructure ready?
As Google, Nokia, and RIM have proven (and Microsoft will soon be following) that you can certainly put NFC into a mobile device, but the usefulness of that hardware is still a bit hazy, which is probably why it is so uncertain as to whether or not Apple will have it in the iPhone 5. Apple loves matured products, and doesn't like to jump onto a new technology before it has proven itself.
As far as the other functionality of NFC-enabled devices, Apple has a leg up on the competition because of its closed ecosystem. There are very few Android devices with NFC chips, so the Android Beam functionality is pretty limited unless you have friends with NFC devices. Apple wouldn't have that problem so much because every iPhone user going forward would have NFC and be able to share things with each other with just a tap.
As far as other uses, NFC has certainly proven that it will be a big part of the future, but it hasn't proven yet that it is a big part of today. If you live in certain places, NFC is probably a great option for you. If you live in the New York City area, and frequent Duane Reade, NFC is pretty nice. If you go to pharmacies like CVS or Rite Aid a lot, or convenience stores like 7/11, NFC is there. If you love McDonalds, NFC is there. But, NFC is certainly not everywhere, and that is sort of a prerequisite for the idea that your smartphone can be a full wallet replacement like Google and Microsoft would like.
Apple is not the type of company to have different models of its products for different regions either, or else we would have already seen an NFC-enabled iPhone somewhere else, like Japan. Japan has a huge infrastructure built up for NFC from mobile payments in stores, and the ubiquitous vending machines, to the public transportation system nationwide. But, many other regions don't have that same infrastructure, and NFC probably won't be a common thing for at least another year. And, in that time, there could very well be more security issues aside from the ones we've already seen, which Apple would surely like to avoid.
That gives Apple some leeway, and means that it doesn't necessarily need to have it in this year's iPhone, and could easily hold it back to have a killer marketing feature for next year's iPhone. Maybe the S in iPhone 5S will be for Apple's "Safe" app which could be a digital lockbox for your credit cards, etc?
It is definitely possible that Apple will have NFC ready, and will have more features to Passbook that we didn't see before, but it is far from a certainty. NFC is the wave of the future, that's pretty certain. With big names like Microsoft, and Google behind it, not to mention every major credit card company, and the major mobile carriers. That's a lot of power behind this technology, but the tech hasn't been built out enough just yet. It still can't be found in many major supermarket chains. It isn't in most fast food chains, or other restaurants. And, it can't be found in most retail stores either. Apple knows this as well as anyone.
A sea of iPhones with NFC chips could possibly help to get the technology into stores faster, but it will also lead to a lot of iPhone users with something in their devices that they can't really use all that much. And, Apple rarely puts a lot of effort into marketing a feature that doesn't have much use for the majority of users.