Mercator Perspectives

Watching Apple

I read with interest recently an article citing rumors that Apple may be developing a “smart” watch that supports mobile payments. My first thought was, what’s so new about that? Another thought centered on how some tech companies tend to digitize things common in humankind’s historic analog life. Bracelets with embedded radio frequency identification chips that support payments also are becoming more common.

About a decade ago, I had a Timex watch that also supported payments. Offered by Mobil in a limited test, the watch had a Speedpass RFID chip in the wristband. When I bought gas at Mobil stations, I placed the watch near the Pegasus image at the pump, and that accessed my preregistered credit card on file. Impressed my friends, or at least I thought it did at the time.

Mobil, which since has merged with Exxon, no longer offers Speedpass watches. My Speedpass watch stopped running after about four years, and I haven’t had a watch since. My mobile phone serves as my watch now.

And that leaves me to wonder why Apple, which created a thing of beauty in the iPhone, would pursue watches as its next technology to perfect. Seems like a “back to the future” event, but it illustrates that Apple has payments on its mind, if not technology. And if it sees a market for a payments watch, millions certainly will flock to get one. Watches are becoming popular again, and Apple is notorious for perfecting what’s trendy.

According to the article, the watch would operate on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system and use Apple Passbook payment software. Apple hasn’t yet introduced its own Passbook payments, but the wallet does support some payment functions using quick-response codes, including Discover’s prepaid gift cards.

Interestingly, Mobil, now ExxonMobil, hasn’t added a mobile Speedpass product. The company easily could have produced Speedpass stickers customers could affix to their phones, or even watches. But it chose instead to keep the proprietary technology on a key fob.

Payments is not a core business for ExxonMobil, and that may be why the oil company isn’t adapting to the times. Payments also aren’t Apple’s specialty, but that apparently hasn't stopped it from endeavoring to bring a piece of jewelry into the 21st century, or at least back to the end of the previous one.

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