Regarding Passbook

I joked today that Passbook was this year's Newsstand. I meant that on several levels. First, it's an app that people seem to be struggling to use. Second, it's an app that depends on being fed content that's out of Apple's control. Third, because of those two factors, it's an app that could have done with some better hand-holding and partnership placements at launch.

Rewind. Passbook was introduced, along with the rest of iOS 6, at WWDC 2012 in June. Apple Senior Vice President of iOS, Scott Forstall explained it as "the simplest way to get all of our passes in one place" -- a single, easily accessible repository for all the gift cards, coupons, tickets, and other assorted passes that were previously scattered among a myriad, less easily accessible apps. He explained it as the solution to a well defined usability problem.

In his subsequent demo, Forstall showed Passbook pre-populated with content from several well known brands, including Apple, Starbucks, Target, United, MLB, and the W Hotel. Forstall also showed gate updates, Lock screen notifications, and shredding passes when they were no longer needed. He did not, to the best of my recollection, show the process of acquiring a pass or actually using it.

Immediately after the WWDC keynote, I spoke to other members of the media and their reaction, like mine, was optimistic and positive. The QR codes that would serve as the bridge between the passes and the retailers seemed antiquated, of course, but many of us simply assumed they were a placeholder or stepping stone towards what would eventually be a more elegant mobile transaction-based solution.

As the iPhone 5 event approached, many people, myself included, began speculating about what else we might see. Apple typically has a couple of unique demoes at the iPhone events, which often coincide with iPhone TV commercials that follow. Passbook seemed like a good candidate. It seemed like something Apple could really show off. A couple of key partnership announcements, like a Starbucks or Target, and a demo of a pass being purchased and used seemed perfectly possible. Passbook, some of us thought, could even be a candidate for this year's Santa-themed iPhone ad, following up the FaceTime and Siri ads from previous years. Santa buying some last minute toys with Passbook powered gift certificates -- what could be better than that?

Instead, at the iPhone 5 event, we got a re-demo of Passbook from WWDC. No partner announcements. No transactional demos. Admittedly, a lot of the apps that could potentially feed Passbook were and remain dismal -- little more than websites in thin app wrappers with inexcusable interfaces and frustrating transactional experiences. And scanning a code is positively, primitively, unsexy ( especially compared to what other platforms are doing with rapid, touch-and-go data exchange technologies like NFC). Not the stuff of great iPhone event demos.

There was also nothing like FireMonkey and Real Racing 3, however, nothing where Apple brought some hip, marquee retailers to Cupertino -- those who did have great looking apps and existing pass systems -- and gave them some special attention, and helped them make something truly brilliant to show off at the event.

Still, developers, including major retailers who already had apps in the app store, or had websites or even marketing mail that could deliver Passbook passes, had had from June until the iOS 6 release date of September 21 to work with the various betas and get something amazing ready. After all, while big ships turn slowly, they still turn, and 3 months is a fair amount of turning time to create a way to push resource files, a bit of JSON, and existing scan codes.

And if three months really wasn't enough time to get app development done, scanners installed, and staff up to speed to support Passbook passes, Apple themselves just happen to be a hip, marquee retailer with an existing pass system (Apple Store Gift Cards), a great looking app, and the ability to scan codes. Forstall even showed an Apple Store gift card off during the Passbook demos. So I held to hope.

Then iOS 6 was released, and Passbook immediately got off to a rocky start. First, the Passbook app started users off with an empty shelf (or in this case, wallet) experience. Sure, starts off empty of music, but digital music is an old, established, understood paradigm and, since the Store button was integrated, an easy one to engage.

iBooks on the other hand, which is a more recent addition, cleverly started off with a free Winnie the Pooh book. It created a comfortable path of entry for users. Immediately upon launching it iBooks, it gave users something recognizable, something they could play with, something they could use to learn about the iBooks experience. It de-stressed the process and brought users quickly up to speed on the feature set. "Hey, here's something you can play with and if you like, here's how to get much more!" is inherently a better usability, after all, than "hey, here's a big empty thing that you can go figure out how to get stuff for and then figure out how to us!"

Passbook presented itself like Newsstand -- empty but for directions to the App Store. And worse, for some users, the App Store portion took hours if not days to start working following the release of iOS 6. Like it or not, first impressions matter, which is why Apple is usually so purposeful and so clever about nailing them. Users will try something new once, twice, maybe a few times, and if it doesn't work, or if it's confusing, they'll soon stop trying and give up on it.

As much as people take issue with Apple's controlling nature, they complain even more when things don't work, and often the things that don't work are the things outside Apple's control. When the iPhone launched, and for many years thereafter, it was bad carrier service in the U.S. Last year it was old media empires that were ploddingly slow and technologically inept when it came to producing Newsstand content to begin with -- and that was after Apple and Fox held a special event to show off The Daily as a launch title.

Passbook didn't even have that. No Winnie the Pooh. No pre-populated Apple Store pass. No comfortable path of entry.

I've now used Passbook several times, and successfully so. I downloaded the Cineplex Mobile app and have used it to buy a few movie tickets. It is, as I feared, a website in a thin app wrapper with an inexcusable interface and frustrating transactional experience. Ugly and imprecisely, I've been able to purchase tickets using my Paypal account and get passes generated and loaded into Passbook. From then on, from the moment Passbook and Apple took over, the experience has been great. I've been alerted. I've been updated. I've been able to shred.

Everything has worked fantastically well -- as well as Scott Forstall showed off at WWDC 2012 and again at the iPhone 5 event. But when I've had to have the Passbook passes scanned at the movie theater and get the actual tickets (because the passes aren't the actual tickets, they're the thing you use to get the ticket...(?!)), it's been unsexy, and its been a part of the process entirely outside of Apple's control.

With Newsstand, Apple didn't go the iTunes or iBooks route, didn't establish a specific format and present the content is a consistent manner. They outsourced to publishers, and the experience suffered. With Passbook, Apple didn't offer the iTunes transaction system, didn't establish a specific process in a consistent manner. They outsourced to retailers, and the experience suffered.

When I joked that Passbook was this year's Newsstand, a bunch of people immediately replied that at least they could hide Passbook in a folder, unlike like Newsstand (which is a folder). That's not the sentiment you want to hear.

If Apple had gone with the Winnie the Pooh model from iBooks, they could have pre-populated Passbook with an Apple Store card. Some have suggested including a nominal amount of credit on it, since it would be returned to the Apple Store anyway. But even absent an existing balance, it could have been used to show how Passbook works, how money could be added to the card using a great app like the Apple Store app, and a great transactional service like iTunes. It could have provided users with an excellent first Passbook experience and excellent first impression. Even if other Passbook feeder apps were abysmal, that experience would have balanced the scales.

A year later, I'm still waiting for Newsstand to get better. Or, preferably, for Apple to Ping it and replace it with "iNews". I'm not sure if I'm waiting for Passbook to be replaced with a more consistent, more controlled "iWallet". I expect it to eventually, though not immediately. Right now I'm waiting and hoping for Passbook to get better. Matt Brian of The Next Web has shown how Apple is promoting Passbook using iAd, which may help, and Matthew Panzarino, also of The Next Web has shown how Apple is pushing Passbook passes from OS X Safari to iOS. Those are good steps.

Siri, which was announced as a beta, struggled with uptime and reliability at launch, but Apple has stuck with it, improved it, and extended it. That's not surprising, because natural language interface is a hugely important part of the future. Mobile transaction payments are just as important, so it won't be surprising if Apple sticks with Passbook, improves it, and extends it as well.

Apple just needs to do it quickly and compellingly enough that iPhone users don't stick Passbook in a folder and forget about it.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • I had a target coupon in passbook, went to target and was expecting it to notify me. Nothing happened. I did my shopping and as I was checking out I let the cashier scan the coupon and again nothing happened. It's as if she didn't even scan the coupon. She had to manually take off the discounts for me! Complete failure on my first try.
  • Same experience for me as well. I also don't like the idea of having an app to make another app functional.
  • What about after you add one pass to the Passbook app, you loose that link to the app store. So then if you want to download more passbook enabled apps, how do you find them? What would be great is the ability to snap photos and add your own coupons, QR codes, and cards to the app. The app is a mess. The worst that Apple has to offer.
  • Exactly, there is no Passbook section of the App Store (that I could find)! Come on Apple...
  • For the life of me i've been wondering how the hell i got a Winnie the Pooh book. I was like, "I didn't pay for Winnie the Pooh! They better not charge my credit card! Nothing against you Pooh. We're cool. But i'm not paying for you."
  • Rene, you mention other technologies like "touch and go and NFC" saying scanning codes is "unsexy." I just wanted to throw my opinion out there. That's this, i don't care what technology they use. Take when i use my starbucks card on my phone. either way i still have to reach my hand out and present the phone. now whether i have to touch something, or scan a code makes no difference to me. As a consumer i do the same thing. I reach my hand out and it get's deducted. The technical method is not something i care the slightest bit about. The method isn't what matters. Now Passport, i'm with you, it's launch has been horrible. If Apple can't get their own store working you know there's an issue of incompetence going on their now. The other thing is i've for a year now used the Delta phone app to recieve boarding passes. And not like your movies. It's my actual boarding pass. I don't even print off a paper copy of anything anymore. You'd think Apple would have the sense to get them on board at launch to at least update the app to send the boarding pass out of the delta app into passport at the least considering they already get the boarding passes. The other problem is simply some stores don't have scanners, and account access and such for such a thing. one of my grocery store has a rewards card program and scanners but the scanners are old and can't read off of phones because of the glass. As for movie tickets. As long as they charge an extra dollar service charge for buying over the internet they can kiss my backside, i'll buy in person and save my dollar. regardless i hope it improves. i wouldn't use it a ton but i would use it for, starbucks often, grocery store rewards, coupons, costco, gift cards. As it is i carry only id and a credit card.
  • I'd like to be able to add my own stuff to Passbook like the PDF I used the other day to enter the Dutch Instrumentation Fair in Amsterdam. I actually forgot to bring the print and retrieved it on my iPhone, blew the barcode up to full screen and it proved scannable. The lady at the desk was surprised that it worked out. Passbook would be a great place to keep that kind of stuff.
  • You can use the Gyft app to enter your physical gift cards. Gyft is compatible with passbook.
  • While I agree that they should have had more partners at launch, and that there are certain ways the app is lacking, I've had a pretty good experience with two of the apps that are available. I can't speak for Cineplex but using the Fandango app I buy my tickets, transfer them to passbook and when I get to the movie theater it pops up and the ticket taker actually scans my phone screen. Pretty seamless. The walgreens app works great too. Go to the register, scan my discount card, pay, and be on my way. Again, seamless. That's not to say that it doesn't need improvement. I really hope Starbucks jumps on the bandwagon because I use their app to pay at Starbucks all the time. It'd be better to just have it pop up on my screen when I arrive. On top of that, they need way more partnerships in order to improve it. Partnerships that are as effective as Fandango, Walgreens, and Starbucks have been for me. Three, for now two, things in passbook, just doesn't cut it.
  • when you used the fandango ticket, did the ticket automatically appear in the lock screen when it got close to the movie time? or when you got to the theater?
  • I used fandango ticket today and had no problems. The show a notification on the lock screen when I was close to the movie theater. I had to swipe the notification to get the movie ticket.
  • Starbucks said they'd have passport support by the end of the month. will they make it? who knows but that seems to be on the way. My guess is it will basically be the same functionality as the starbucks app. I think they are updating both because starbucks just changed their reward system to not send physical postcards but just store them on the card. i'd bet one of the additions to a future app will be to track how many free drink cards you have. that would have to be added as it's not their now. i'm hoping we get that and passport support in the next release.
  • I was lucky to have a Lufthansa Flight the day after I updated to iOS6. In the beginning I was wondering too how this will work. But after figuring it out (and seeing the "add to Passbook" Link in the Lufthansa App) everything was fine. Currently LH doesn't support time and gate changes so it was just another container. But I can see the potential in it and I like the design ... and I even hadn't seen the shredder at this time ;-) Using the pass at the gate was without any problems. I think passbook is a one of the ideas that needs some time from now but as I said ... I like! :-)
  • did you ticket automatically appear in the lockscreen once boarding started? or did you still have to launch passbook to display it?
  • The irony of this is that Apple, in allowing outside sources control their "passes" for passbook, creates the very source of the problem. The part that Apple "controls" is the part that's not f***ed up.
  • Good article Rene. I completely agree with you on this issue. I wanted passbook to be so much more but was left with a bad taste in my mouth as soon as I tapped on the app icon. I hold out hope but, for now anyways, its going in the "Misc" folder.
  • PS - I've used Passbook a half dozen times at Starbucks - works like a charm. I'd like to try using it for a upcoming flight though...
  • I didn't think Starbucks was Passbook-enabled yet. How have you used Passbook at Starbucks? Loaded up a gift card on a third party app like Gyft?
  • At least I can put Passbook in a folder... unlike Newsstand... >:(
  • It is a bit of a surprise that Apple didn't get behind this new feature and do more to educate developers about the potential or curate more initial partners, but I don't think it will be the next News Stand. It solves some very real problems for iOS developers. I know we are working on some very cool iterations that will change the way users interact with city services and small businesses.
  • Good article Rene.
    I find Cineplex doesn't get the whole electonic / Passbook thing. I find it very annoying to buy my ticket online and still need to go scan my phone to get my ticket printed. The whole electonic method is to avoid the line and paper. So for me, until Cineplex change his way, i'll keep buying my ticket on my Mac and print it at home. I still remember, many years ago, when Cineplex was starting to offer ticket online and were charging 1$ fees for it. Not acceptable.
  • I stuck it in a folder on day two.
  • I don't see the point of this app. When it was loaded it went right into my "junk" folder.
  • Passbook does not offer much over the status quo -- it is a solution largely in search of a problem. I could already purchase tickets in dedicated apps, and have them scanned. Passbook does not help with the former, and, as for the latter, the only convenience it offers is having them appear automatically on my lockscreen as opposed to opening up the app, and that does not even work all that well. In the future, for users with dozens and dozens of gift/membership cards, I suppose it would offer the added feature of getting to pull our your phone rather than your wallet, but, since you have to pull out your wallet anyways to pay, the added value of this is dubious. What should worry us as iPhone fans about Passbook is not the actual shortcomings of the app itself, but what it suggests about Apple's development process. Rene has written several editorials about Apple over the years postulating that what separates Apple from competitors is that while it may not release often, it releases only when the product is fully baked. With tentpole features like Passbook, Maps, and Siri, this is certainly no longer the case. For each, you can cast around for some rationale ("its the retailers' fault", "they had to rip off the band-aid", "voice processing requires a public beta") to give them a pass, but the fact is Apple is now releasing products where granting such a pass is necessary, and that negates the "fully baked" claim that used to differentiate Apple. And even those passes do not explain releases like Podcasts, which puzzlingly degrades an experience and stops interoperating with the rest of their ecosystem, for no benefit I can fathom. That is the real concern regarding Passbook.
  • I couldn't agree more. That was my first thought really. Another less than stellar Apple offering. It's one thing to have