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Summary:

Apple’s intent to acquire AuthenTec is another possible clue, in addition to its Passbook software coming this fall, and its experience running one of the most successful e-commerce sites on the planet, as to what Apple might be working on in the area of mobile payments.

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During the company’s earnings call on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about his plans for adding an e-wallet to the iPhone. In response he mentioned that Passbook is one of the “key features” of the iPhone, but didn’t actually answer the question one way or another. An Apple mobile payments system has been rumored for years, but there hasn’t been any one piece of evidence that individually points to any obvious Apple plans. But looking at the pieces of evidence together, especially in light of Friday’s announcement that Apple intends to acquire AuthenTec, we’re starting to get a picture of what Apple could be up to in this area.

Passbook

Passbook is not — as of now — a true payments system. And it isn’t available just yet because it’s coming with the iOS 6 update this fall. At least for me, it’s one of the most exciting new features of the software. It’ll keep already purchased digital train, subway and plane tickets in one app on your phone for scanning, and it will also hold payment and rewards cards as well — like a Starbucks or Target rewards cards. It basically approximates the part of your real-life wallet that doesn’t include cash or credit cards.

Now, if you have an iPhone, you can already use digital rewards card apps or payment apps, like LevelUp, which use barcodes for transactions. But having creating a distinct app for rewards and loyalty cards, it’s not hard to imagine that Apple will use Passbook as a way to gather feedback about how comfortable people feel with some wallet-like functionality in their iPhone. It could just be a convenience feature — or it could be a way to train customers for something coming next.

iTunes

Right now, iTunes is a global marketplace where Apple sells digital goods: music, movies, TV shows, ebooks, apps, games, and newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And to have an account, and enable quick and easy payment (just click to buy and enter your Apple ID password) you have to have a credit card hooked up to it. As a result, Apple already has more than 400 million credit cards on file, perhaps the most of any one company.

ITunes payments are actually not limited to digital goods. You can already use your iPhone to buy physical items: if you have the Apple Store app on your device, you can walk into an Apple Store, and with the Easy Pay feature you can scan the item, enter your password to authenticate the charge to your iTunes account, and you can leave the store with your new earbuds or iPhone case without even talking to a salesperson. Right now, the system only works for items under a certain dollar amount.

Security

AuthenTec chip

NFC, or near-field communication, is a technology that enables contactless payments and other actions like  mobile marketing, digital rewards cards and loyalty points. It is already being used in some smartphones for payment transactions with apps like Google Wallet. When you have your credit cards or personal information connected with a mobile device, security is critical. And that’s where AuthenTec potentially enters Apple’s plans.

One of the company’s key products is an NFC chip with on-chip encryption, which is designed specifically for mobile payments. And in keeping with Apple’s penchant for a seamless, touch-oriented user experience, AuthenTec’s expertise is biometric security. The chip requires just a finger swipe to authenticate a transaction — the idea being that a person’s unique fingerprint is even more secure than a password.

To be clear, chips for mobile payments are not the only thing AuthenTec makes — and it’s entirely possible that Apple snagged this company just so it stays out of the hands of a competitor like Google or Amazon. But AuthenTec is considered a leader in the secure mobile payments field.

The missing pieces

As far as expertise with NFC technology goes, Apple already hired at least one high-profile employee from NFC chip factory NXP. Since then, it has been rumored to be testing the technology on iPhones. (Though I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the next version of the iPhone to have NFC capabilities.)

While the signs point to the possibility that Apple is aligning elements of a payment system, the biggest question mark is the actual payment processing. With iTunes, Apple runs one of the largest electronic storefronts on the planet, but paying for stuff in the real world is different — Apple would have to help its customers buy stuff from companies other than itself. To do that, Apple would most likely need to strike deals or partner with credit card companies, payment processors and the makers of point-of-sale terminals that enable contact-less transactions at brick-and-mortar stores.

It’s true that NFC is not new. The technology has been around for years and it has remained on the margins (some would say it’s been far too overhyped, in fact). But that’s often Apple’s sweet spot — the company is almost never the first to use a technology, but it’s really good at figuring out how to make something really easy to use and popularizing it. And for a technology in need of a huge boost, Apple implementing it, as my colleague Ryan Kim wrote recently, would easily make that happen.

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