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This post is about Apple’s Passbook. It’s not about mobile wallets, or Google Wallet, or Square, or anything else. I realize the space is vast and dynamic, but I only have an iPhone, and I’m here to write about Passbook. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to share some thoughts about Passbook, a thesis I’ve developed around “cards vs. apps,” the big opportunity this creates for Apple, and how potentially disruptive Passbook could be.

A few weeks ago here on TechCrunch, I wrote a column about the unbundling power of mobile, and how fierce competition at the application layer is fragmenting audiences. To take this a step further, I believe Passbook Cards could actually unbundle some native applications, stripping out the most essential features of apps and placing them in a format that, in many cases, is easier to access, easier to use and navigate, loads faster than apps, is more intelligent about time and location, and is much more lightweight as a consumer experience.

I’ll share a personal example. Sometimes, I’m “dragged” to Target to go shopping. I’m not going to download the Target iPhone app — which, I will admit, is actually fully stacked with information and very responsive. We’ll sometimes scramble to find a coupon in the car, and at checkout, every time, someone asks us if we have our Target number. We usually don’t, and we don’t want to sign up for it again. This would be a case of where I’d just want my iPhone to know I’m at a Target and push a Card notification to me with my payment information, whatever coupon code I may be entitled to. The UPC scanners at stores like Target will also read QR codes, so I just want to fire up Passbook in line and be done with it. In this case, the native app is too much of a commitment for me, I just need the Card.

So, whereas mobile apps unbundle in a disruptive manner by often leading to fragmentation, in many cases Passbook Cards could unbundle native apps but, in doing so, also create new opportunitiesfor companies, brands, and developers striving to build larger audiences on mobile in the face of app discovery challenges and distribution challenges. Earlier this week, Urban Airship acquiredTello for its Passbook management tools, and I’ve heard from many enterprising builders around the world who are creating tools and platforms like PassMaker Pro (which empowers merchants to easily create Cards for tickets, coupons, etc.) and PassForce (which can convert information traditionally stored in apps into cards). Tools exist for developers and merchants to create and distribute their own cards, especially through a reliable channel like email.

Given all these possibilities, it seems to me that Passbook is underrated and under-promoted, at least for an Apple product, and not getting the attention it deserves, especially from the majority of app developers, merchants, and brands. Despite my excitement for Passbook, I was surprised to hear that many experienced technology observers and operators weren’t impressed with Apple’s handling of the launch and subsequent lack of marketing of the platform. In only a few months for me, I’ve used it for many store purchases, boarding passes, and movie tickets, and each time it worked flawlessly. I’m waiting for Passbook to completely replace my wallet to include things like ID cards, driver’s licenses, and it feels like it’s just a matter of time before this happens.

Obviously, the shift to mobile devices is the overarching, mega-tectonic technology platform shift of our times. Consumers expect mobile experiences for any and every function or brand. On iOS, native app performance surpasses the experience mobile browsers or other non-native solutions provide, and usually delivers more delight and utility to users, including new functionalities like iOS push notifications. However, apps are hard to discover, oftentimes difficult to navigate, sometimes too heavy, clunky, and slow, and somtimes unnecessarily complex for the everyday consumer. Many users could be more likely to understand how to use Cards and potentially adopt them more rapidly. Cards also help solve the fragmentation problem between customers and merchants. As Cards unbundle certain apps, it gives Apple a powerful bundling opportunity, as well, the chance to control the payment, rewards, and redemption layers of mobile commerce. And, as these Cards can unbundle apps, Passbook ironically affords Apple an attractive bundling opportunity to lock down mobile payments and better connect merchants with their customers at the point of sale.

The long-term overall impact of Apple’s Passbook has been a hot topicover the last two months since it was launched with iOS 6 on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

But one thing is for sure: if you’ve got a business — small, medium or large — where getting people in the door is important, and are looking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of McDonaldsUnited AirlinesEventbriteMLBStarbucksAmerican Express and others, you should at least be looking into Passbook.

We wanted to go over the basics of what constitutes a Passbook “Pass”, and give you some insight into how to go about building your own Passes from scratch, because, unlike building a full-fledged iOS app (or even a mobile friendly version of your website), Passbook in most cases should require less development time to get your brand onto someone’s iPhone (although like anything, the more complicated the Pass the more work will be required).

Also, for businesses that don’t want to bother with development at all, even though Passbook functionality has just recently been introduced, there is already a healthy number of still-kinda-in-beta third-party services that promise to take most if not all of the technical aspects out of creating Passes, and we take a quick look at those as well.

DIY Passes

passbook overview Dont Pass this up: Getting your business on Apples Passbook, DIY style

First of all, it’s important to understand that Passes are not apps – Passbook is an app (that is installed by default on iPhones with iOS 6 nd can’t be removed), but the actual Passes (coupons, whatever) are just a file type that only works on iOS 6 (iPhone, iPod Touch – not iPad right now) and in OS X 10.8.2.

When a user clicks on a Pass file (for example: example.pkpass) on any of those devices it will add it to Passbook, and, if the user has iCloud set up, it will sync the Pass across all of the user’s devices. So a Pass can be completely independent of an iOS app — or, if you do have or are planning to build an iOS app, Passbook can be integrated into your app as well.

There are currently five Pass types; Boarding Pass, Coupon, Event Ticket, Store Card, or ‘Generic’ (yes, that can cover a lot of things) and each of them has their own look and feel, although in all cases, the look is generally a solid color background with as little text as possible and a 2D barcode that can be read by laser and optical scanners. Apple – a bit smugly – suggests that you could use the camera of an iPhone/iPad as your in store scanner.

Unless you run an airline, train or bus company, we’re guessing the use of the Boarding Pass, um, Pass, isn’t on your radar. The other four, however, are all Passes that many businesses that rely on getting people to walk in the door can use. For example, a fitness club could use the Coupon Pass to get new members, who then could get a Store Card they could use daily as a membership card, and if the club held a special event, the Event Ticket Pass could even be used as well (although most likely you’d just use the Store Card for entry, but we’re being hypothetical here).

For each of these Passes, you can also set date/time and location alerts that push to a user’s home/lock screen at the appropriate place and time. Beyond the simplified, digital wallet interface of the Passbook app, and of course the tremendous number of iPhones in use, these place/time push notifications should be very attractive to many businesses.

Even better, like the rest of a Pass, businesses have the ability to push changes to the Pass to alter these parameters (so if your event gets delayed, all you have to do is push out the time change and the Pass will show a notification at the new time).

passbook timelocation Dont Pass this up: Getting your business on Apples Passbook, DIY style

Passes are two-sided — the front is your coupon/ticket/membership card/etc., and the back has your contact information, the option to delete the Pass from Passbook, and a link that opens up your iOS app if you a) have one, and b) the user has installed the app. While it’s obviously a bit obscured on the back of the card, if you do have an app and the user hasn’t downloaded it yet, this is a nice little bonus channel for app installs, although it will probably be a small one.

The .pkpass file is a compressed (zipped) file that contains the images, text, and server files that constitute the Pass. The server commands that you’ll need to code to run a basic Pass aren’t very complicated — but of course, if you are building a very dynamic Pass that heavily integrates into your back-end systems, it will most likely get much more complicated. The good news is that Apple has some very clear documentation on developing for Passbook, and simple, non-dynamic passes are pretty straightforward.

The compressed Pass file must be signed using an Apple developer key, and this is an important point: according to Apple’s rules, all Passes must be signed by a unique developers key that is owned by the business that this producing the Pass. Apple says that if you use a “contractor” they should be using your development key that is associated with your brand/identity/business etc. If you already have an iOS app, you should be able to associate that with your Passes using this signed key as well.

How this rule meshes with the third-party apps we’ll cover below seems to be a grey area at the moment — if there are any lawyers reading this, we’d certainly be interested to hear your take. However, if you share your own key (yes, you’ll need to cough up the $99 a year Apple development fee) with a freelance developer, you’re certainly in the clear with Apple.

Once you have a Pass ready, getting the word out about the Pass is simple enough, especially after Apple recently introduced the “Add to Passbook” button, which gives visitors to your website, or readers of your email newsletter, a recognizable (at least eventually) reminder to add a Pass. Passes can also be shared or installed by a link without the badge (as with the “Add to Passbook” badge, the user just clicks on the link and the device automatically recognizes and adds the Pass to the user’s Passbook) as well.

So, if you have access to a development team and a designer, in our estimation you shouldn’t be afraid of building your own Passes – especially if you don’t plan to make them to dynamic (for instance, changing remaining balances on the card in near real-time would be trickier), they shouldn’t take take too much development effort to complete.

Another bonus is that if you are planning multiple Passes of the same type (for instance, a weekly Coupon) most likely after you built it once, updating for new Passes shouldn’t take much effort. At the very least, if you have a development team and/or work with an outside developer already and are interested in Passbook, have them take a look at Apple’s documentation to see what kind of investment it will take to get going.

However, if you don’t have access to development resources (or just want a solution that takes the tech out of it), as we said, a number of services have already popped up that offer Pass creation and management.

Pass creation services

Since the launch of iOS 6 in September, there has been a wave of services/startups that are focusing on tools for marketers to build, share and track Passes.

As Passbook becomes used more widely, marketers and business owners — many of whom have no development resources or experience — will want an easy to use but powerful service to build, distribute and track the success of Passes. A very similar ecosystem was created for Facebook Pages as well as of course for mobile apps themselves, but all things being equal, Passes are much closer to the development commitment needed for Facebook Pages than they are to mobile apps, so it’s not surprising these services were able to get up and running so quickly.

In a not-t0-distant-future article we’ll do a full-review of all of these and other similar services (many of which seem to be, quite frankly, in, or still hardly out of, beta), but if you are interested to try them out now (some have a trial period) before our review, here are some that we’ve hit upon so far in no particular order:

If you know of any other services like these, please just let us know in the comments and we’ll take a look for our review.

So, if you’re a business that is thinking of getting going with Passbook, hopefully this article has taken a little bit of the fear out of the way, and you can start thinking about what you’d like to start offering users and whether to do the development on your own, find a developer to work with or give a third-party service a shot.

Relaying a response received from a British Airways representative, AppleInsiderreports that the global airline is already looking into making its official website –ba.com – fully compatible with Apple’s new “Passbook” app in iOS 6, adding that the company is working to add this functionality “as soon as [it] can.”

“I’m pleased to confirm that the ba.com team are already looking into our website being able to work with the new Apple app, available with the iOS6 upgrade,” the B.A representative was quoted as saying in an e-mail sent to one of AppleInsider’s readers. 

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“Please be assured that we will get our Passbook-compatible functionality live on ba.com as soon as we can.”

Introduced with the public release of iOS 6.0 earlier this year, Passbook has been designed to store everything you need in your pocket. It’s not a full wallet replacementyet, as Apple is not allowing the storing of financial information, such as credit and debit cards. Passbook can, however, keep your air-travel, public transport and loyalty cards in one central place, with the app able to call up the pass you need based on your current location – ready for scanning.

As noted, B.A does currently offer customers looking to book flights the ability to save digital boarding passes through its official client designed for iOS. The app does not, however, offer the ability to add or save these digital passes to Passbook.

Virgin Australia was amongst the first of the world’s major airlines to add full support for Apple’s ‘Passbook’ back in September – a system which now offers the option for those customers who do book their flights through the company to have their digital boarding passes delivered electronically in a Passbook-friendly format.

The Australian Business Traveller ended its report in September by noting it believes Pasbook could one day “transform” the travel industry, the same way the introduction of the iTunes Store shook the music industry.

With an army-sized fleet of 249 planes worldwide, and €11.482 Billion in revenues earned throughout 2011, the Harmondsworth, England-based airline adding full support for Passbook to ba.com is definitely good news for those who fly regularly, and should make the process of boarding a lot more convenient in the long-term.

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Krishna Subramanian, CMO, Velti explains why he thinks the under-rated and overlooked Passbook app in iOS6 is set to transform mobile retailing

Amid the excitement surrounding the iPhone 5 launch, some critics pointed to the device’s lack of near-field communication (NFC) as a crucial flaw, claiming it would make it impossible to use the phone for mobile payments — an area where Google has been leading the way. However, this may be beside the point, consider what matters more to retailer and consumers; providing one more way to pay for things (when your wallet is already full of cards) or delivering an entirely new way to deliver coupons, loyalty points, and other value-added shopping offers and services?
Apple calls its new shopping service Passbook and from my perspective this is perhaps the most under-rated feature of iOS 6.
While the sudden appearance of the Passbook icon on the iPhone’s home screen may have some users scratching their heads, its premise is simple; Passbook is an app for receiving, managing, and using offers, tickets and loyalty points. People can receive these items—called “passes”—via email, web, or SMS, or they can be delivered directly into Passbook via a brand-specific, Passbook-capable app offered in the App Store. To use the pass, the user simply clicks on it and a barcode appears. The merchant then scans it to apply the discount, redeem loyalty points, accept the ticket etc.
Brands and consumers in the US have already been quick to embrace the new service and Passbook-enabled apps for brands such as Ticketmaster and American Airlines quickly entered the top ten free apps in the App Store. Uptake in the UK has not yet been as rapid but once brands begin integrating and promoting the new service, it is likely to become equally as successful here.
On the face of it Passbook is a nice convenience and offers consumers a simple way to manage and make use of the offers they find useful and without having to stuff their wallets with coupons. However, on closer consideration it delivers much more than that and I believe that Passbook is poised to become a major force in retail and in the customer loyalty space.

Building a better mobile marketing channel
E-wallets provide a helpful time-saving service but they don’t really solve any problems, while Passbook addresses a very real issue for the retail industry – coupons simply don’t work very well. The number of channels they’re distributed through, mail, email, SMS etc., are simply too fragmented so the coupons rarely end up where they need to be, which is in the customer’s hand at the till. It’s a highly inefficient system for retailers and a significant hassle for the consumers who actually use them.
Now, brands have a direct channel to deliver offers right into their customers’ pockets—no waste, no coupons to be left at home, so no missed opportunities. Passbook apps give the brand a dedicated, persistent presence on the most personal device in the consumer’s life; in-app notifications of newly received offers re-engage customers where other apps can fade from memory and use.
The potential to integrate location-based services with Passbook makes the offer even more compelling and means passes can be sent according to time and location-specific triggers; for example, a customer walking past a store or café can be sent an alert to highlight that Passbook contains relevant offers or promotions.
Passbook may also make it easier for brands to track the performance of the offers they push out to customers. By seeing which coupons are actually redeemed, and how, brands could finally close the loop and apply robust analytics to their conversions.

Making loyalty work
Customer loyalty programs often seem better on paper than they do in practice. By rewarding customers with loyalty points that they can redeem for goods and services, you build stronger relationships, encourage higher spending, and foster brand affinity. However, it’s clear that not all customers find points useful.
34 percent of reward points go unredeemed and expire and to a large extent this is because they are difficult to track and redeem. That means that typically more than a third of loyalty programmes represent wasted effort by the brand and undelivered value for the customer.
With Passbook, loyalty points are updated in real-time as they’re accrued; customers can see how many they have at a glance, and can redeem them as easily as swiping their phone. Higher redemption rates may require brands to reconfigure the economics of their programmes but the impact on customer loyalty makes them well worth the effort.
Mobile marketing is already transforming the way brands engage with consumers and drive business. Passbook represents a fresh opportunity for brands and advertisers to bring the online and offline worlds together in a way that makes sense for consumers and businesses alike. The advent of Passbook could herald the start of a new era where the integration of promotions, redemption, and ongoing loyalty deliver more value than ever.