Not an iPhone, but an illustration of the technology

A patent filing suggests that the iPhone 5S may have NFC contactless payment capabilities as well as a fingerprint sensor. NFC capabilities allow a phone to act as an electronic wallet merely by holding it close to a sensor at a cash register.


While we’re all expecting the iPhone 5S to have a fingerprint sensor embedded in the Home button, suggestions that the phone might include NFC were considered less likely. There’s been far less talk of it, and while contactless payment is now mainstream in the UK, mainland Europe and South-East Asia, it hasn’t yet seen such widespread adoption in the USA. Apple generally prefers to wait for technologies to mature before getting on board.

But a patent application filed back in March 2012 and only just revealed as assigned to Apple suggests that the home button may be even cleverer than we expected. Just looking at one of the patent drawings conjures up the home button supposedly seen on iPhone 5S boxes in Asia …

An electronic device may have electrical components such as sensors. A sensor may have sensor circuitry that gathers sensor data using a conductive structure. The sensor may be a touch sensor that uses the conductive structure to form a capacitive touch sensor electrode or may be a fingerprint sensor that uses the conductive structure with a fingerprint electrode array to handle fingerprint sensor signals. Near field communications circuitry may be included in an electronic device. When operated in a sensor mode, the sensor circuitry may use the conductive structure to gather a fingerprint or other sensor data. When operated in near field communications mode, the near field communications circuitry can use the conductive structure to transmit and receive capacitively coupled or inductively coupled near field communications signals. A fingerprint sensor may have optical structures that communicate with external equipment.

Contactless payment offers greater convenience than signature or chip-and-PIN, but usually carries greater risk of fraud as there is no verification that the person using the card is the owner. For this reason, many contactless payments are limited to relatively small transactions, typically up to $25-30.

However, combining contactless payment with a fingerprint sensor would solve the problem, ensuring that only the owner of the phone could use it to make a payment. Here’s how it’s likely to work.

You would download an app (a new version of Passbook?) and select an option to register a contactless credit or debit card. Holding your card against the phone would add the electronic data for that card to your phone. When you want to pay for something, you hold your phone close to the reader instead of your card, placing your finger on the home button. The app checks that the fingerprint is the one registered to the phone, and then transmits card details to the reader.

Could NFC be Apple’s “one more thing” tomorrow? It would be a very impressive trick to have kept such a huge feature secret all this time, but we’ll soon find out!