Though some rumors had claimed otherwise, the iPhone 5 didn't include near field communications (NFC) capabilities. There are critics who believe this represents a missed opportunity for Apple, it's more likely the company doesn't believe that NFC is ready for prime time just yet.
In the months prior to Wednesday's debut of iPhone 5, the Internet pulsed with claims of the rumored handset's new features. Despite Apple's efforts—and Tim Cook's pledge—to double down on secrecy, images of connector cables, assemblies and housings seemed to surface almost daily.
With every subsequent leak, tech sites and bloggers performed analyses, scanning every pixel of the fuzzed, felonious photos for bits of detail that might give away their blurred subject's intended purpose. One mainstay rumor leading up to the launch of iPhone 5 was that it would be the first iPhone to feature NFC.
Further alluded to with the announcement of Passbook during the detailing of iOS 6 this sumer, the inclusion of NFC, and the ensuing future of mobile payments, seemed like a given for Apple's new device. About halfway through Wednesday's keynote, however, NFC's presence on iPhone 5 began to seem less like a "One More Thing...", and more like "Not a Thing...".
Though some keynote attendees, and live blog lunch-breakers held out hope throughout the latter half of the presentation, when Phil Schiller moved onto pricing and the device's availability, it seemed NFC's fate was sealed—at least for another year.
The Bleeding Edge
So why did Apple choose to omit a technology as revolutionary as NFC on a device as cutting edge as iPhone 5? In short, simply because it's still a bit too revolutionary.
While NFC has been a technological buzzword for years, it has yet to see successful or widespread implementation. Apple, though forward thinking as it is, has a long history of shying away from emerging standards with the major exception of when it is the originator of them.
Consider Blu-Ray and USB 3.0—two major technologies that have existed for years with nothing more than a nod from Cupertino. Apple cultivates and sells a user experience, and while certain technologies are instrumental in bringing this about, they often take a back seat when the company deems them less than world-ready.
Such is the case when it comes to NFC. Practical use for the technology has not fully matured, and the requisite industry partnerships with credit giants, retail chains and smaller merchants are far from being in place nationwide. Leaving NFC out of iPhone 5 echoes Apple's tendency to steer clear of certain technologies until it can be certain a cohesive experience on par with its stringent standards can be had across its retail markets.
LTE's delayed appearance on the company's handsets is a prime example of this trend. While Android and other smartphone manufacturers implemented the wireless standard long before iPhone 5, they did so with mixed success and reception. Apple finally feels LTE is ready for the spotlight, hence its appearance on iPhone 5.
As opposed to taking a chance on NFC, Apple is confident in its own Passbook platform for iPhone 5 and iOS 6. In an interview with AllThingsD's Ina Fried, Apple Senior Vice President, Phil Schiller stated that "Passbook alone does what most customers want and works without existing merchant payment systems." Elaborating, Mr. Schiller offered that:
It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem. Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today.
A quick look at Passbook's initial offerings sheds light as to just what "customers need today." The initial release of the app is slated to include compatibility for major retail store loyalty and gift card programs, movie and sporting event ticketing and support for a bevy of significant travel and lodging players.
In other words, all things that cost money, and all things one would potentially use NFC for. The latent benefit for Apple is that it gets to play gatekeeper and control the user experience. This benefit in theory will translate to a smooth, Apple-esque experience for the end user that NFC may, or may not, have been able to provide.
A final limiting factor of NFC is its realized potential. Up to this point, the standard has been synonymous with mobile payments. Google, and other early adopters, have utilized this with mixed success. While payments are a logical application, there may be even better uses being cooked up at Apple.
In fact, earlier this summer, The Wall Street Journal reported on several NFC patents filed by Apple, and hinted at Scott Forstall's interest in the platform. According to the newspaper, engineers on Mr. Forstall's team began to develop what, at the time, was a comprehensive "wallet app."
While it can be assumed that aspects of this project both turned into, and were appropriated for, Passbook, it can't be certain that the fully featured digital wallet concept was scrapped. It has even been reported that while the slightly less feature-rich Passbook made the cut into iOS this round, internally at Apple, engineers still refer to it as the "wallet app."
Though what this means for the future of NFC in the company's products can't be spoken to, it certainly means Apple isn't resting on its laurels with Passbook—for what we know, it could just be testing the waters. That would be in keeping with other technologies that Apple has embraced in recent years.
Although those less than enthused with iPhone 5's feature set may beg to differ, the exclusion of NFC on the new product is not necessarily an example of the company erring on the safe side with one of its leading products. If anything, it shows Apple living up to its own manta of "Think Different."
In a separate interview on NFC dating back a few months, Phil Schiller said companies like Google, Isis and MCX are "all fighting over their piece of the pie, and we aren't doing that." For all we know, Apple already has its own pie, better than the rest, already baked behind closed doors in Cupertino.