Blog Post

Apple’s new Passbook isn’t quite ready for prime time

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(s ual), Walgreens, Target(s tgt), Fandango(s CMCSA) 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.

61 Responses to “Apple’s new Passbook isn’t quite ready for prime time”

  1. Stephen Weil

    Aside from all of the points made above, I’m confused by an interface that requires you to download other apps just so that the one you want to use will work. I want the simplicity of a single app managing the complexity of all of my reward cards, coupons, tickets, etc. Maybe if I were a gamer, and used Game Center, this would make more sense.

  2. I agree that most of your complaints are really developer implementation issues. There are, in actuality, many different ways to get a passbook. Loading them from an app is only 1 way. Passbook slips can also be emailed or clicked on in web pages. Even on your Mac. Passbooks you click on in your Mac are automatically synced to your phone.

  3. The brightness is needed for the scanners of course. The scanners need a high contrast image/barcode and if the screen is too dark there is not enough contrast to the black barcode! Geofencing worked for me as well

  4. The Walgreens app was very cool, once we are a few months in the apps will show up. Very new way to use the Iphone. I hate having to use keychain cards or having my wallet stuffed with reward cards.

  5. Sweetpete, thanks for the link to the passkit samples. This is a good illustration of how passess are sent to Passbook outside of an app. As others have noted, the success is totally dependent upon 3rd parties. It’s a great concept from Apple, but a huge risk since so much of the success is outside of their control.

    From an end user perspective, the intent, discoverability and ‘how’ it works are quite opaque. There are a lot of new concepts to learn which will limit adoption. But that’s just speculation on my part.

    Apple certainly could have made it simpler by including a pass OOTB for 5% off anything from the apple store (or $.99 credit in the app store). Having content in passbook to start woulda been great.

  6. Agreed with the points in the article. Nothing about Passbook is discoverable, especially after the first ‘pass’ is added. The dependence on a 3rd party app is OK for some things. For others it makes less sense.

    One example. I bought tickets from Ticketmaster (prior to iOS6). After I upgraded I opened Ticketmaster app and in my ‘Orders’ I select a show and there’s a new button called ‘Passbook’. Once selected there’s an option to ‘Send to Passbook’. This works, and the tickets display in Passbook. But they are also still accessible from within Ticketmaster app. So, in a way, it’s a redundant step to ‘send to passbook’ since I already have the tix in the native app. If I wasn’t required to intervene to ‘send to passbook’ that would be a bonus. But forcing me to take a second action is unnecessary overhead.

    For loyalty cards Passbook seems to make a lot of sense. Until my battery is dead. :)

  7. Passbook depends so heavily on third party support that there’s no way it could be totally smooth out of the gate. The passes are defined by the third parties. For something like geofencing, I assume that the provider of the pass has to encode that into the pass. While the airlines obviously know which airport you are departing from, they may not all have that data ready in a format that can be used for passes. It will depend on how much they care to get that fixed.

    Not being able to access the list of passbook-enabled apps when you have passes is certainly a usability issue, and I hope Apple fixes that soon. (I do notice that once you delete any passes in Passbook, you’ll see the list again. That may not be practical at a given point, of course.) It’s also unfortunate that it sounds like it can be hard to find how to get a pass in some apps, but that would be the responsibility of the app developer.

    My first Passbook experience was a failure, which was annoying, but I think the responsibility for that was on Target’s side. The cashier tried to scan the barcode. That failure could be chalked up to screen/scanner issues, but she also entered the code provided in the pass and the register wouldn’t take it. It’s the same code shown on the coupon in the Target app, so it seems something is wrong with the coupon itself.

  8. “Why is it necessary to download one app just to use another app?”

    I think you’re kind of misunderstanding how Passbook works. Passbook just acts as a central area to collect passes that would otherwise be spread out between individual apps. You don’t “need” an app to use Passbook; you use the apps you have already, and if they’re aware of Passbook, they’ll support sending passes to it. You can also receive passes in emails and add them to Passbook from there, too.

  9. Between maps, passbook and many of the new features of iOS, it truly does feel like iOS 6 is an unfinished product. At least after reading this, I have SOME idea of what to expect with Passbook, but until now, I had no idea what the point of the placeholder app seemed to be (It didn’t help that the link to the app store was broken until I pulled some weird Time/Date fix off the internet).

  10. I wish I could complain about how passbook works with the apps that hook into it, but in this godforsaken hole of a country called Canada, none of the apps on the store support it yet! NOt to mention, some retailers who have apps that support passbook and are on both sides of the border either have a seperate Canadian app that doesn’t work with passbook, or, like Safeway, no Canadian support or app at all.

  11. I’m not experiencing the iPhone 5 issue you describe. Like apple said, it’s optimised for the larger screen. Filling the app with dummy passes from, the file the entire display.

  12. Atul Arora

    BillGuard has integration for Passbook. Doesn’t work well. I had a credit card that I wanted to add to passbook via Passbook. I clicked in BillGuard. It sent me an email with passbook attachment. Now I use gmail web client on iphone. Clicking on the attachment did not add it to the passbook. I had to forward the email/attachment to my email to load the attachment into passbook. Looks like Apple did not test the feature at all or did not care how it would work unless you used their email client.

    • John S. Wilson

      Apparently email support only works with Safari. That’s what I read in the Passbook guide:

      “You are responsible for distributing passes to your users. Mail and Safari understand how to work with passes—on iOS they install passes directly, and on OS X they install passes via iCloud—so you can use them to add passes. Your app can also install passes using the Pass Kit framework.”

    • Lea Aharonovitch

      Passbook doesn’t seem to support non-Apple email clients though in most cases Gmail attachments do work for passes. It may have been a misfortunate glitch. Glad you worked it out.

    • Erica Ogg

      I’ve actually written about Passsource. It’s a great idea. But the point of my post is to review the app the way a regular customer — people that don’t read gadget blogs (my mom, for instance) — would. There’s much work to be done for this app to be intuitive for mainstream users. And I’m looking forward to that! As I said in the post, I have very high hopes for this app.

  13. steverino

    You don’t actually need the apps. Part of the idea is that United, Amtrak etc can email you a pass or make it available on a web site – and it will automatically be added to Passbook. Sounds like they haven’t got that set up yet.

    • Erica Ogg

      Yeah, they haven’t done that yet. Before downloading the United app I had already received mobile boarding passes from United via email — there was no prompting to add to Passbook.

  14. I’ll say one amazing thing about Apple, they have a tough skin, and are willing to get out in front of everyone else. They willingly subject their products to anyone’s fifteen words of fame ‘comments’ (a la Warhol’s 15 min of fame). Look at the huge industry of reporting that has been hatched around their inventions. Anyone can be the next Columbus or Vespucci charting a course into a new world with analysis, as though they have discovered something real.

    ‘Not quite ready for prime time’ – come on?

    Columbus, your world is flat.

  15. Ouch, sounds like a rushed product, worse than maps. You’re right, the way to get passes into your app seems incredibly painful and long winded. I got the impression that the iOS was smart to know where to detect them and add them automatically, or at least, you could click on a boarding pass and it would ask you to add it but to download another app to then add it to passbook is very un-apple like. Sounds like a thoroughly disappointing experience.

    • Sweetpete

      It’s not a rushed product, just a rushed article bashing Apple without any research whatsoever. A simple Google search for Passbook API would have brought up Apple’s developer page for Passbook A quick glance at that would have answered the authors ‘nitpicks’ such as:
      “Passbook will optimize the presentation of passes in order to facilitate a successful scan. For
      example, the screen’s orientation will be locked to portrait and the backlight will temporarily be
      boosted to the brightest setting. ”

      Her second ‘nitpick’ about using the iPhone 5 screen size – it does. The app is full screen – the passes were never meant to be and you’ll see why when you have multiple passes and not just one.

      Instead of basing her entire review and article on a single app with a crappy implementation (I mean come on, United? – when was the last time someone said anything good about this airline, much less their app?!), she could have tried some of the great demos out there that show off the power of what Passbook can do. She could have had a look at or even created a few of her own at (I’m in no way affiliated and found them on a Google search – imagine that!). She could have educated herself on the fact that passes can be distributed via an app, an email or sms or via a webpage. Or that they can be updated live. Or that they can be shredded (neat!).

      Nah, why bother doing some research and providing some insightful commentary? It’s just easier to get pageviews by bashing a great designed feature poorly implemented by one developer. Why bother even updating the article with things she’s learned in the comments like the screen brightness feature of it?

      • John S. Wilson

        While I find the Passbook information you linked to amazing (more on that later), your tone was a bit much. I think Erica pointed out some great stuff even though I didn’t agree with it all. No need for the dripping sarcasm or personal attacks.

        Now as far as the info I read through some and you’re right — it’s amazing what Apple has created and the structure they’ve communicated so devs can get Passbook right. Not sure where the disconnect is between the guides and the implementation.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. Joe Eversole

    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.

  19. 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.

  20. John S. Wilson

    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.

    • Erica Ogg

      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.

      • Seth Long

        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.

      • Duncan McAlester

        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.

    • 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).

  21. Seth Long

    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.