Is Apple afraid of mobile payments?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal has many techie sites buzzing again about Apple‘s (Nasdaq: AAPL) soon-to-debut Passbook mobile wallet app. The article notes, as many have since the announcement of the new service, that Passbook does everything a mobile wallet should do — except allow the user to pay for merchandise. This is a big exclusion, and it has some wondering why Apple is such a laggard when it comes to mobile payments.

Learning from the mistakes of others?
The article discusses some of the reasons that Apple may be slow to jump into the e-payments fray, noting that the company is often conservative when introducing new products and feels quite at ease with being second on the scene. This seems an odd notion, considering that Apple is often the front-runner in tech markets.  Even heavyweights like Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) still look to Cupertino to figure out what to base their next products upon — such as the Ultrabook, which was inarguably modeled on the MacBook Air. Even Microsoft‘s (Nasdaq: MSFT) planned digital wallet copies the Passbook’s loyalty card and coupon storage capabilities — though not its nifty geo-location feature.

Plenty of evidence is cited to show that Apple’s decision to stay out of mobile payments, at least for the time being, was a deliberate one. However, I think it’s less that Apple wants to let others stumble and fall so that they may leap over them and experience instant success. The company appears to be observing the chaos in the mobile wallet space and the slow acceptance of the technology by consumers and has decided that the market isn’t mature enough to enter just yet.

Mobile wallets aren’t setting the world on fire
 (Nasdaq: GOOG) has had less than stellar results with its Google Wallet, introduced just over one year ago. Only one carrier, Sprint, deigns to support the service, and the Android-based phones that use it are not legion. The reigning king of e-payments isPayPal, which promptly sued Google for allegedly stealing its corporate secrets by way of former PayPal executives who jumped ship and went to work for the big G.

Even the fact that Microsoft is entering the field doesn’t mean that the digital wallet’s time has come. The previews reveal a product that melds Apple’s Passbook capabilities with near-field communication technology, like Google Wallet. The truth is, though, that consumers just have too many security concerns with the products. A report released earlier this year shows that more than half of customers younger than 35 consider fraud an issue when paying with a smartphone. According to the Journal article, Apple’s CIO was apprehensive about privacy issues with NFC as well.

Fool’s take
It seems to me that Apple is taking its time simply because it knows that the time is not right to enter the market with a full-blown digital wallet product. The company isn’t in the habit of marketing flops, and is almost certainly aware of consumer wariness regarding the products.

I have no doubt that Apple will eventually enter the field, but it will do so when it has overcome the problems that will keep its offering from being wholeheartedly embraced by customers. Apple doesn’t need to watch others fail to learn how to succeed; I’m sure it’s working on the very problems that are currently holding back digital wallet systems. Meantime, reviews are comparing Passbook to Google Wallet, even without payment options — and Passbook is coming out on top.

Passbook is just Apple’s opening salvo, lining up customers who will segue seamlessly into their full digital wallet, whenever it’s introduced. Now that’s savvy marketing.

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A version of this article, written by Amanda Alix, originally appeared on

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