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Apple’s MLB Passbook trial and some thoughts on cross-platform mobile software

November 2, 2012

Time to balance things out a little bit. I’ve been on my Apple soapbox for a while (or rather, anti-apple soapbox), and sometimes it’s easy for me to forget why they’re the most highly valued company in the world (possibly in history, but that’s only on a technicality due to inflation and there is some debate).

The truth is, Apple are correctly valued as far as I can tell, and their fans adore them because they do the basic things right:

  1. they put their customers first, in terms of product design, user experience, and customer service
  2. this results in a superior, easy to use product.

Most of my objections stem from their arrogance (patent wars, anticompetitive behaviour, general demeanour) and their complete unwillingness to use their global wealth and power to do something good for the world.

I digress.

Their products are amazing – and in particular, I’ve had an interest in the future of Near Field Communication (NFC), digital wallets and the transition toward payment as a service, and the various ways in which our digital identities can be managed from a single device – which will apparently be our mobile phone.

As I live in Australia, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of trialing Google’s Wallet or the Apple passbook (can anyone get me access?), but have been watching trials and results from afar.

What caught my eye last week during was a report on the progress of the four Major League Baseball  teams that elected to sell tickets via Apple Passbook, one of whom happened to be the World Series winning San Francisco Giants.

Over a 2 week period, the four stadiums that used the Passbook application recorded 12% of tickets stored within the Passbook app. The app enabled fans to use their phones as they entered the stadium, without having to carry the ticket around.  At such an early stage of product release, and with such a short period of time for the trial, this is an enormous result. Of course, with one of the teams being San Francisco – I’m cynically willing to bet that most of those early adopters were wealthy Apple employees as well as other well-off, super early adopter Silicon Valley employees – but still, a great result for a short trial.

As with many things, Apple’s passbook isn’t just about saving you credit card space in your wallet, or preventing you from having to carry around that one ticket that fits neatly in your back pocket – the real benefit is it’s ability to help organise and simplify your transactions – both financial (paying for things) and social (memberships, loyalty cards, access, identity etc).

The next challenge faced is the intercompatibility of these wallets across multiple platforms, most if not all of which are currently exclusive to a certain type of device, provider, or in some cases specific technologies.  I met with one of the leading payment service providers recently who told me that there were dozens of digital wallets in play, all of which would be launching or have already launched in key markets around the globe. If a retailer accepts loyalty card scans from an Apple passbook for example, will it also take it from a Windows Phone? Or, dare I say it – a Blackberry?

Where the big technology companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Samsung have viciously protected market position by constructing intellectual property fortresses, the future of these companies lies not in their ability to sell the most devices and dominate the market, but in their ability to empower the greatest number of consumers through their software deployments. Let’s face it – as dominant as Apple and Samsung are now, there will always be another player who will disrupt the market.

The consumer pitfall in having technology companies produce operating software for mobile devices (Apple), and vice versa (Microsoft, Google), therefore, is that success for each company means increased consumer fragmentation and reduced compatibility between devices. As each company tries to build its own ecosystem of users (Mobile is about ecosystems, not devices) this further accentuates the problem and makes consumers feel more isolated from each other – we’ve all heard the water cooler conversations I’m sure:

“You use a windows phone? Really?”

“Why wouldn’t you just get an iPhone?”

“I got an Android phone but all my music is in iTunes and I can’t put it on my phone!”

The opportunity for digital wallets and applications like Passbook is therefore to enable cross-platform utility while still retaining relevant IP and profitability.

And, to be honest – I’m not yet sure how that will happen, but if I did – I’d be doing that and not writing this blog!

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