Not an iPhone, but an illustration of the technology

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.

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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!

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27 Responses to “Will iPhone 5S act as an electronic wallet? Combined fingerprint/NFC patent suggests that it might”

  1. Actually these articles makes the event a more lesser attractive. They create these expectations and make us expect too and once apple doesnt deliver these so called features, it disappoints us too. If these articles werent there at the first place, there wont be any disappointments at all.

  2. Frank Bauer says:

    Contactless payments are mainstream in mainland Europe? Which Europe are you talking about? I have not seen contactless payments anywhere in Europe.

    Reminds me of how they always say in those infomercials in Europe that this or that is the biggest thing right now in the US. Then you travel to the US, and they have an informercial about the same stuff, saying that it’s the biggest thing right now in Europe. Nobody in the US really seems to care about NFC, so let’s act like somewhere, far away, people actually do care about it. Let me tell you something: They don’t.

  3. rogifan says:

    I wish people would stop posting photos of that home button concept as if its a leaked iPhone 5S shot.

  4. Would be nice, replacing my wallet is the last big thing I really want/need my phone to do. I still this as being 2-3 years off for Apple though, certainly not getting my hopes up for tomorrow.

  5. So *now* NFC is a good technology, but a year ago, Phil Schiller said it was useless? What the…

  6. There’s a lot more to that patent application than meets the eye — particularly the bits about “body coupled communications”. Some of the stuff about NFC doesn’t make sense in the context of what is normally referred to as NFC; they are talking about something else as well.

    http://www.nfcworld.com/2013/09/09/325790/apple-patent-reignites-iphone-nfc-hopes/

  7. By 2014, it is expected that nearly 20% [or 1 in 5] of the US population will have an iPhone.¹ [Of course, these stats are for all iPhone users vs. just the current generation, and doesn't take into account non-iPhone NFC phones]. Only 7.2 % of the population uses Discover card.² So if there are more NFC smartphone users than there are Discover users, it would make sense for merchants to adopt this technology.
    ¹ http://www.statista.com/statistics/236550/percentage-of-us-population-that-own-a-android-smartphone/
    ² http://www.statisticbrain.com/credit-card-ownership-statistics/

  8. Kind of took a while to report on this one…

  9. I’m wondering if they intend to integrate Bitcoin into this? That would be ideal.

  10. The S in iPhone 5S stands for Security

  11. Kevin Roe says:

    If you think about it, all of the leaks (that I’ve seen, aside from the processor speed) have all been external – ring around the home button, new colors, new plastic 5c cases, etc. The ring around the home button is why people are assuming it will have a fingerprint reader. No one seems to have a complete model to tear down and see what’s inside it. Because of that, it makes sense that NFC (if included) wouldn’t have leaked. I’ve always thought that NFC would never take off unless Apple implemented it – so far I’m right. We’ll see tomorrow!