Using the app for what it’s advertised for — scanning barcodes — works as intended. But getting to that point was more complex than it should be. In all, the app feels incomplete and perhaps rushed. In other words, it doesn’t feel like an Apple product yet.

Passbook in iOS 6

Burning question I have to ask: what is up with Apple’s Passbook app? Since its unveiling at WWDC, it was one of the things I looked forward to most in iOS 6. As a frequent traveler and someone who detests printing things out, I love the idea of storing digital tickets, boarding passes and rewards cards in one place on my phone. But after using it for the first time Sunday, I’m left feeling mostly perplexed and a little let down.

To be clear, using the app for what it’s advertised for — scanning barcodes — works as intended. But getting to that point was more complex than expected. In all, the app feels incomplete and perhaps rushed. In other words, it doesn’t feel like an Apple product yet.

Here’s what I found, and what I hope will be fixed over time.

Setting up Passbook involves many more steps than you would think. The first time you launch Passbook, you’ll get a screen showing the kinds of passes that can be added along with a very helpful link to the App Store. That link takes you to a curated list of apps already integrated with Passbook: Amtrak, United, Walgreens, Target, Fandango and more.

I selected the one I was looking for: United. After the download, launching the United app displayed my boarding passes. The process of adding those to Passbook wasn’t all that obvious, but after opening up my boarding pass in the app an “add to Passbook” button appeared finally. Clicking that took me to yet another step where I could manually add each boarding pass to Passbook.

Now, United’s app design is a little clunky, but it isn’t Apple’s fault. But why so many steps to the Passbook process? Why is it necessary to download one app just to use another app?

When I went to find my Passbook pass, the app worked as expected: I got a well-designed boarding pass with my flight information and a barcode that was scanned by a United gate agent without incident. However, there were some other things that were not quite right about Passbook.

The implementation of notifications is odd. With still 10 hours to go before my flight’s departure, a notification appeared on my screen from United with my flight time. It stayed there all day, even to a certain point after the flight. It wasn’t clickable and nothing I did would make it go away.

What happened to the location-aware notification advertised? I still had to go to the Passbook app once I was at the airport to find my boarding pass. The way Apple described it, when my iPhone 5’s GPS detected I was near the airport the pass would pop up on my screen so I wouldn’t have to go searching for it. That didn’t happen.

Using the app more than once breaks the experience. My United boarding pass is in Passbook. Great. But I also want to get the other available Passbook apps. One problem: the link to the App Store within Passbook? It completely disappeared. And there’s nothing that tells me how to find it.

Hmm, maybe I can just search the App Store myself. Searching for “passbook” brings up a dozen apps, but the only result that’s legitimately related to Passbook is Walgreens. Searching more specifically, for “Target Passbook” for the Passbook-enabled Target app finds me nothing. Searching for “Target” finds me a Target app, but nothing in the description indicates that Target is Passbook-enabled. This is confusing because you don’t know if you’ve found the most recent app. This is both a problem related to App Store search and the way Apple is promoting these Passbook apps.

Those are my biggest concerns, but I have some other nitpicks:

Brightness doesn’t correspond to the setting for the whole phone. I have my iPhone 5’s brightness cranked way down to save battery, but Passbook passes still display with the brightness of a thousand suns (or so). Perhaps this is necessary to make sure scanners can read the barcode?

It doesn’t appear to be designed for the iPhone 5 screen. Somehow Passbook appears on the iPhone 5 screen the way the apps whose developers have not yet modified their apps for the new 4-inch screen do: centered on the display with black bars framing it on top and bottom. Except, you know, Passbook wasn’t made by any old developer. It was made by the same company that made the new display. This seems like a weird oversight.

Each of these complaints I listed are minor, but they add up to a worse experience than I expected. I know that Passbook is just one feature of more than 200 that are new in iOS 6, and it’s not going to be used as frequently as the Maps app, which is a far greater concern for a lot of users. But still: for one of the headline features of the new OS, the state in which it was launched is pretty underwhelming for new users. And like the uproar over the maps app showed, it stands out because it is so unexpected from a company known for its attention to detail.

  1. Geofencing worked for me when I tried it at Walgreen’s last week. The notification popped up as I walked into the store, though the text it displayed was pretty useless. It should remind me that I have a loyalty card for the store but instead it really just said that I was there.

    1. My Walgreen’s experience was good in set up. It was very clear that my card would be stored in Passbook and it was easy to do. I haven’t visited a store yet though.

  2. I think you’re mostly pointing out problems that are developer related. For instance, for me to add mobile coupons from Target I had to sign up for Target’s mobile coupons by text message. That’s not Passbook’s fault. It’s Target’s fault for using the same system they’ve been using for years and just slapping Passbook features on top.

    It will probably take awhile for Devs to do it right. i’m looking forward to what Starbucks, Delta, and other prominent companies do.

    1. Some, sure. But not being able to find the link for other Passbook apps isn’t United’s fault.

      And to your point about Target — that’s kind of the issue. There’s no real uniformity in how Passbook works between apps yet.

      1. The poor in-app UI is entirely Apple’s fault and they’re compounding it by not making a “collection” for Passbook apps in the App Store. That said, they did that with Newsstand, too, but had a collection for Newsstand apps available from within the App Store about a week or two later. Newsstand, however, had a permanent in-app button to get to the store.

      2. I agree on both.

      3. Other than the first screen suggesting Passbook capable Apps John is correct your complaints are all implementation by the developer. It’s not necessarily all their fault, multiple POS vendors, disparate customer databases, traditional infrared barcode scanners instead of the optical 2D ones required for non-traditional barcodes, etc… there’s actually a lot of infrastructure requirements that make deployment difficult, it actually illustrates exactly how hard NFC is going to be as the infrastructure upgrades there are more difficult and costly to implement.

        We had planned to roll out a Passbook program for a national chain of franchised restaurants, the Apple side of things went amazingly well, we had geofenced coupons and loyalty cards working a treat, it all fell apart though when integrating with the disparate nature of franchisees’ infrastructure. I imagine large corporations don’t face the same myriad of systems, but have vastly more difficult layers of security to burrow through.

    2. I think the problem here is implementation. Which, if we have known from Apple, is usually pretty seamless. And let’s be honest, those developers won’t _know_ what to do with Passbook if Apple doesn’t tell them how to do it so it’s easy for the consumer. What is the best way to implement our product in your product, how are we catering to the consumer, etc.

      And as Erica pointed out towards the end, there are obviously issues on Apple’s end that could use attention (brightness control within the app when it’s times for scanning, getting rid of the letterbox blocks).

  3. Passbook give you options to choose for each pass whether you want to use the geo-fencing or timed notification. Also, the brightness increase is also deliberate because, as you stated, the scanners won’t work as well when the brightness is down. Everything else is developer oriented- size of the passes and implementation of getting the passes into the passbook are for them to worry about.

  4. Brightness is indeed to allow for a better scanning.

  5. From my experience with the United boarding pass, it appears on the lock screen like a notification about 8 hours before your flight’s departure. When you swipe the “notification,” it brings up the pass without unlocking the phone. It did not appear to be geofenced around the airport.

    Passbook is like an API. It’s up to the individual app makers to decide what it does (ie: geofence, etc).

    The brightness is a function of barcode scanners. It’s a good feature, IMO. It sucks when you pull up passbook in the back of a dark cab though.

  6. This whole experience has been a let down. As you stated use the app once & you cannot reconnect to the app locator. While the Walgreens app does pop up near the store it was not an easy process to get it work first time out. Again, why do we have to download a separate app to use it. Seems a bit rushed & disconnected on apple’s part.

    1. The issue of downloading an app is entirely up to the developer. Passes can be sent as email attachments or added to Passbook via a webpage so an app is not required.

  7. Just what Joe said – your Boarding Pass shows up on your lock screen as a swipable object. When you swipe it, you get your boarding pass without having to unlock your phone.

    1. Yeah, mine was definitely not swipeable.

      1. My United notification was swipeable – as with all swipeable notifications you need to hold your finger on the icon for a moment before the swipe function is presented.

  8. The brighness “issue” is a feauture. I use CardStar and I have to manually adjust the brightness for the scanner to detect the barcode so having auto brightness is pretty neat.

    1. My question is, is there any way to get barcode affinity info that I store in CardStar, into Passbook without the store or library etc. creating an app?

      1. You can create a card in at PassSource. It’s a little finicky, and there’s a bit of a learning curve to figure out the correlation between some fields and what pops up on the card, but it does work.

  9. I found it a bit incomplete & also frustrating! But the truth is, I haven’t really bought anything away from Apple’s ecosystem!

  10. Amtrak doesn’t work with Passbook yet, as far as I can tell.

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