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

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.

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