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Article: The State of Passbook

by on December 19, 2012

It’s been almost 3 months since iOS 6 was made available for everyone with an iPhone 3GS or newer, adding a number of great features, some heavily panned features (Maps), and one particularly underused feature, Passbook. Now, I know you might argue that Passbook is great and something you use every day, but it seems that there are bigger issues with merchants embracing it as a viable option.

If the feature is unfamiliar, Apple offers a great description of Passbook:

Your boarding passes, movie tickets, retail coupons, loyalty cards, and more are now all in one place. You can add passes to Passbook through apps, emails, and websites from participating airlines, theaters, stores, and more. Then you can scan your iPhone or iPod touch to check in for a flight, get into a movie, and redeem a coupon. You can also see when your coupons expire, where your concert seats are, and the balance left on that all-important coffee bar card. Wake your iPhone or iPod touch, and passes appear on your Lock screen at the appropriate time and place — like when you reach the airport or walk into the store to redeem your gift card or coupon. And if your gate changes after you’ve checked in for your flight, Passbook will even alert you to make sure you’re not relaxing in the wrong terminal.

It sounds like “the future” and it is, except not a whole lot of merchants have been updating apps to take advantage of it. In some cases, some employees even seem confused at the idea of scanning the screen of a phone.


I think the biggest thing about using Passbook is that is still isn’t easy enough for everyone to initially understand. While those who follow Apple news regularly were scouring the App Store for Passbook-compatible apps immediately after installing iOS 6, many others have relegated it to that apps-I-never-use-but-can’t-delete folder that most people have. I’ve seem some confusion over the need for both a merchant’s app and Passbook, which I usually explain that the app populates it with passes.

One feature that helps the frictionless aspect of Passbook is that passes can appear on your iPhone’s lock screen when you get near a particular merchant. This part of Passbook has worked quite well, and is something I appreciate, especially since it saves the trouble of unlocking my iPhone, opening Passbook itself (or an app), and then actually opening the pass. It’s just there and ready to go, almost like my iPhone is participating in the experience.

Some examples of Passbook passes work well—in my friends’ experiences and my own, the Starbucks card on Passbook works just as well as that on the Starbucks app. In fact, I trust it enough that I’d have to dig through my apartment to actually find a Starbucks card—it was put away months ago. I haven’t flown on a Passbook-compatible airline since iOS 6 launched, but I’ve heard that people are having good experiences. The same goes for tickets to baseball games.

In other cases, Passbook has been hit or miss. Two out of the three times I’ve used it at Target (different locations, too), have resulted in a confused look from the cashier, a few more failed scans, and trying the Target app itself—it seems that Target uses PDF417 barcodes on Passbook, like most Passbook items, as opposed to the linear (the ones that look like UPC codes) barcodes that older scanners expect. This has led to the cashier entering in the numbers by hand (they are not on the Passbook pass, but the Target app), which eventually works. By this time, I feel like a jerk, trying to save a couple of bucks on soup or lunch meat with my phone.


I’m not picking on Target though, I appreciate their ambition to make this work, and I suspect that any kinks will get ironed out in the long-run. However, almost six months onward, it should be working much better across the board, or people with less patience are going to give up on the technology.

What I’m actually disappointed with are the other large merchants who have some sort of rewards card and have not embraced Passbook. A number of sites exist, promising to make passes for stores that haven’t, but the reliability seems to be hit or miss. One example is PassSource, which features quite a few that I use, including IKEA, Best Buy, Kroger, and Petco. Using these has been hit or miss, either because of a cashier who knows the store doesn’t officially offer digital versions of loyalty cards, or a “our scanner can’t scan this card” situation (again, linear vs. 2D barcodes). In those cases, the third-party generated cards are officially unsupported, so I’m not complaining if they don’t work. Also, I know it takes time to roll out new hardware across a chain, but certainly an electronics retailer like Best Buy would be working to eliminate plastic loyalty and gift cards, right?

Instances like non-working or no official support for passes has led to a bit of mistrust with new passes. While I’m confident that my Starbucks pass will work flawlessly every time unless there is some sort of failure, I’m still hesitant to only use other passes, such as those from Square, Discover Card, or LivingSocial. While these companies are reputable and have officially added Passbook support, I find myself still wanting to bring some sort of printed version of the coupon just in case, especially if they are for a smaller merchant.


Some may argue that spending the time and money to create and support Passbook isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for merchants, especially since there are mobile platforms other than the iPhone. I think scanner upgrades will be a big cost, but many companies have found ways to support everyone through apps. In the case of many, including Starbucks, Target, Walgreens, and LivingSocial, the barcode is displayed within a panel on the app on all supported devices (usually at least iOS and Android, sometimes Windows Phone, too). On the iOS app, they usually have an “Add to Passbook” button, giving users the option to collect things in Passbook if they so choose.

Passbook itself isn’t hard to create passes for, so any merchant with an app displaying loyalty and gift cards should be able add a make-a-pass button easily in a future update.

Getting There

I’m in the camp that Passbook still shows huge promise, despite a number of merchants not taking advantage of the capabilities. While it may take awhile, much like Newsstand, even a couple of useful passes will keep it on my home screen.

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