• Bruce Burke

Apple's Ambient Payment Ecosystem

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

In 2019, Apple along with partners, MasterCard, and Goldman Sachs introduced the Apple Card. This Appleized credit card will draw consumers into a new world of ambient shopping.

With features including no fees, daily cash back, and seamless integration into Apple’s mobile devices, Apple Card introduces a new level of privacy, security, & transparency to credit cards.

Apple Card, combined with the U1 Ultra-wide band chip in iPhones and Apple Watch, and forthcoming AirTags will revolutionize shopping as we know it ---- wayyyy beyond NFC!

Hello, Titanium!

I received my Apple Card about a year ago, since then it has spoiled me tremendously and now I want all my cards to work like this. There is no other card like this, from design to functionality this credit card experience has been totally reimagined. From issuance to paying off the bill, no card on the market provides the level of quality and service than the Apple Card - let's dig in.

I was one of the early invitees for the Apple Card a promotion appeared in the Wallet App, and I provided some simple information. I expected to have to wait, but I had a decision in seconds. My new Apple Card was issued immediately and virtually in my Wallet. As I had already set up Apple Pay and Apple Cash card in my wallet I was ready to shop online, or in store with my new card.

As you already see, there is a lot of components that work together seamlessly to make Apple Card works the way it does. There's the Wallet App, which was introduced first, allowing users to store and use any card using Apple Pay. Only possible through control of both software, and hardware.

Then there is the Apple Cash card which is only a virtual card, there is no physical embodiment of this component, unlike the titanium Apple credit card. Then there is either Touch ID or Face ID to authenticate the payment. And of course an NFC sensor that allows the card to be used by iPhones in retail stores that accept contactless payments. And let's not forget iOS, and all the transactional gymnastics this software has to do in order to have all these components work together seamlessly.

Created by Apple. Powered by iPhone

I created the video above while unboxing my personal Apple Card and setting it up. As you can see the process is smooth, dare I say elegant. It's a seamless connection of the virtual card in my wallet, with the physical card on my desk. It also integrated with Apple Cash & Apple Pay.

To carry Apple Cash even further, this soon to be payments giant, recently introduced Apple Cash Family. Apple says, you can set up Apple Cash for the children and teens in your Family Sharing group so they can make purchases, and send and receive money in Messages. You can even limit who your child can send money to, get notified when they make transactions, and lock accounts.


I was first introduced to these types of virtual card features way back in 2012 at a conference I created called Social Mobile Payments. One of the show's sponsors was a CSI, a company that had invented something they called a Global V Card. It used tokenization, balance sharing, and controls over spending. But it wasn't anywhere near the integration of Apple Card with an iPhone.

Before we go any further, I realize that some readers may just be getting to know me. But I have been involved in electronic transactions - pretty much from it's humble beginnings. Many of the ideas we had then, are much easier to implement now then they were then --- at a deeper level.

I'm trying to stay as mainstream as I can, but the payments industry has its own set of lingo. But bear with me, I am going to show you the future of Apple's Payment Ecosystem - it's worth it.

The Simplicity of Apple. In a Credit Card.

At it's recent iPhone 12 event, Apple first introduced the HomePod mini. A small device that connects to your iPhone to play music, or listen to podcasts and other audio content. But the HomePod demo showed off a feature that Apple has been dropping hints about for a long time.

In their event and subsequent press release Apple says, when listening to music on iPhone, customers can simply bring their device close to HomePod mini and seamlessly hand off the music without missing a beat. And later this year, the experience gets even better with visual, audible, and haptic effects when sound transfers from one device to the other. Personalized listening suggestions will also automatically appear on iPhone when it is next to HomePod mini, and instant controls are available without having to unlock iPhone.


This capability is accomplished by utilizing the U1 chip found in iPhone 11 and 12 models, as well as the new Series 6 Apple Watch. The U stands for Ultra Wideband (UWB), the number 1designates the first iteration of this chip. In the iPhone 11 the feature was downplayed, listed in the additional features section of the press release. It read, "the new Apple-designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology, the first ever in a smartphone, for spatial awareness. With iOS 13.1 coming on September 30, AirDrop gets even better with directionally aware suggestions."

You may have noticed this if you have done an AirDrop recently. Little dots kind of swirl around the icon of nearby Apple devices, that are available to receive. The dots get more opaque as you bring the devices closer to each other. Now they have expanded these type of feature, adding the above mentioned features to the HomePod mini with the release of iOS 14.1.

Ultra Man

As you can see in the video above from my friends at NXP, Ultrawide band technology has a much longer range than Bluetooth or NFC. Because if it's ultrawide signal strength it can more precisely track sensors located in any given physical area. UWB is a pulse radio wave, now this is not Amplitude Modulation (AM), Frequency Modulation (FM), or even the phase radio used in Bluetooth.

A UWB chip can send out wide-reaching pulse waves every 2 nano seconds. But these chips are also very power efficient drawing only one milliwatt (mW), of energy and operate in the 3.1 - 10.6 Ghz spectrum. The power level is so low, that the "noise" from the UWB radio does not interfere with GPS, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals.

As it does not interfere with other signals you don't have to have a communications license to transmit and receive these radio signals. Its wide open - range starts at about 650 feet, but 10 feet is about the best range to connect UWB radios to the sensors, that pick these frequent pulses. It's theoretical maximum data rate is 480 Megabits Per Second (MBPS).

As you can see in the video, and the information above these UWB chips are a tremendous tracking tool, with an accuracy tracking minimum of .328084 of a foot, to 1.6 feet. In other words, like The Police song it knows, every step you take, and every move you make. It's also plays well with other wireless signals, and goes into a low duty cycle state, as to not interfere with others.

UWB radios use three different methods to judge where a user is. The first is Two Way Ranging (TWR), where the radio sends signals and the sensors return them, with the pulse calculating the distance. There's also Time-Difference of Arrival (TDoA), where radio transmits to an array of sensors, which return at different times to help position the user. The third method is Phase-Difference of Arrival (PDoA), which calculates the angle the radio is from the sensor. You Will Be --- UWB.

AirTag Me

So your iPhone is sending out signals, and something is bouncing them back to your handset. That something is an AirTag. Although not yet announced by Apple, these tags will come in many different varieties and provide a number of unique experiences. In the video below, Apple analyst and YouTuber, Rene Ritchie share how AirTags provide secure interactions with your iPhone and other devices.

But Rene talks about it from the consumer side. Attaching AirTags to your keys, wallet, dog, or gym bag. But AirTags will also come in the form of a retail tag. To provide ubiquity to these retail AirTags they will contain capabilities beyond being UWB "anchors" that interact with your phone.

AirTags will include other technology, so older iPhone models that don't contain UWB chips can interact with them. They will have Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Near Field Communication (NFC), all topped off with Quick Response (QR) codes, or special Apple designed, circular App Clip code, that can be scanned with iPhone's Camera App. Regardless of which iPhone model you might have, you should be able to interact with AirTags in retail locations.

Bumper Crop Circles

You might have noticed a lot of radiating circles lately in Apple designs. The marketing campaign for iPhone 12 shows them over and over. On the box covers and wallpapers there are radiating waves being emitted by a point. The now infamous AR-enabled invitation to the October event, with it's swirling multicolored balls around the word iPhone 12 in 3D. Even the circular design of the new MagSafe charging disc, that fits on a ring of magnets inside the phone's glass backplate.

This is all related to Apple moving forward with this sophisticated UWB radio system. So much so that the W1 and W2 chips in AirPods and now the H1 chip in AirPods Pro, that uses UWB to track your head and body movements to provide spatial audio, unlike anything you've ever heard.

I think how you can see how this is going to start creating some tremendous experiences for users. And of course the AirTags are programmable, how much, by who and to what level we don't know yet. But based on the capabilities they have demonstrated with it so far - plenty. Remember Apple has already demonstrated AppClips with the release of iOS 14. At the time Apple said an App Clip is a small part of an app that is designed to be discovered the moment it is needed.

App Clips are associated with a particular product or business, and load within seconds to complete a specific task, such as ordering takeout or filling up the car with gas. They can be easily discovered and accessed by scanning a new Apple-designed App Clip code, or through NFC tags and QR codes, or shared in Messages or from Safari, all with the security and privacy expected from apps. Every merchant should be building App Clips now. They are the future of both physical, and online commerce.

Discovery is Key

As Apple's SVP of software engineering, Craig Federighi said in the video, allowing users to discover your brand through a mini app pops up on their screen, and then stores your brand app in the new App Library so consumers can later get to know your company better is a huge benefit.

Brands who utilize App Clips will be seen as cutting-edge companies, who put user experience, convenience, and serendipity first. You'll be in the right place, at the right time, at the moment of a consumer's decision.


As you can see from the examples provided in the video, App Clips are unobtrusive. They pop up on the bottom of your screen, similar to when you open an AirPods case. If the user doesn't swipe away, they can Sign in with Apple, using Touch ID, Face ID or passcode to authenticate themselves and then with the click of a button, buy with Apple Pay. Discover, Decide, Authenticate, and Pay.

If you run the video below full screen you may be able to make out the AirTag on the scooter. It's a circle in the middle of the handlebars. You can see that there is the Apple-designed circular App Clip code. I imagine potential renters were able to locate the scooters using a place card on Apple maps, then using the U1 chip in their iPhone or Apple Watch to hone in on their exact location.

In the future, you will be able to do this with a pair of Apple Glasses. Yes, I said Apple Glass, but that's a subject for another blog in the future.

Back to the Front

But, I want to return to talking about Apple Card here. I know you're like, What? ... you lead us all the way to Apple Glass, only to circle back around to Apple Card?

Well that's because Apple is the one who issues all limited time promotions with Apple Card. If you are a cardholder, a regular stream of promotions are sent out by Apple, on behalf of their business partners.

Get a discount on X when you use Apple Pay at X. I'll let you make up your own scenario, then you can apply it to being near an AirTag, and being offered an even better deal than the shopper standing right next to you. Get an even better deal if you buy in the next ten minutes. Yes, its the modern equivalent of a K-Mart Blue Light Special - that only you know about.

And I'm not going to stop there, opportunities abound. Just yesterday PayPal announced they are moving into a market segment in payments that's referred to as Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL). Until the last few years, this type of payment at a retail store required triplicate forms, all kinds of ID, background credit checks and signatures galore.

Now it's been automated on smartphones, and can be as easy as picking your payment plan, because your identity is known and authenticated. Offers will be made based on the product, your credit history and other credentials, with a host of different payment services and other options.

Buy Now, Prey Later?

Klarna, is one of the companies in this BNPL payment space. The swedish company says their service is the shortcut to shopping. Their website says shoppers get personalized inspiration, exclusive deals, and the freedom to pay how you prefer. Only in the Klarna app.

But what are these companies doing with all that information about you, and your shopping habits? Well I don't know about Klarna, or any of the others, offering similar services. As I said earlier, it's an attractive enough market segment for PayPal to get involved.

Not to say PayPal doesn't provide secure transactions, but with Apple I know where my information is going. It's in my smartphone, secured by biometrics, and not shared with anyone, even Apple.

Obviously Apple will try to make using your Apple Card more appealing, but regardless if you use another card it still goes through the Apple Pay platform and you have a record of exactly where, and when you purchased the items, and how much it cost.

Apple can store these transactions in the secure enclave in your iPhone, and compare them next time it encounters a similar purchase. Providing an even better offer than others, to bring the purchase to the Apple Card. This is the same kind of stickiness the other apps want, but it's done differently with Apple. As with everything else they do, Apple puts user identity and security first.

The Payment Layer?

Is we go through all these different layers, it's interesting to note how many different pieces of the puzzle Apple had to fit together to make all this happen. All the while dropping this trail of breadcrumbs, providing clues as to what's coming next.

Weaving the different capabilities into their presentations as they roll each new feature out, usually as a supporting cast member of the device they are promoting. It's funny how they each feature has been downplayed ... But wait until they all work in unison, the experience is going to be fantastic.

People will buy, just to do transactions -- It's what YouTuber, MKBHD would call Dope Tech.

About ten years I ago, I wrote a regular blog for Mobile Payments Today. In one of the many posts, I wrote in order for a payment system to be really effective in smartphones, that it needs to be a separate layer of the operating system. I was thinking about payments the same way engineers, think about the seven individuals layers of a computer network.

But I think Apple has gone way beyond all that, they have woven the payment system into the very fabric of the iPhone and iOS ecosystem, integrating into the environment around it ...

This is how you make something intuitive, you bake it in. Apple is doing unlike anyone else, and it's perfect for the market we're experiencing right now. As Apple is rolling this out, consumers are adopting contactless payments like never before.

In my early days of mobile payments, when NFC was first integrated into smartphones, there was a colloquialism in the industry that contactless was a solution to a problem that didn't exist.

But now with this raging global pandemic, contactless payments and no contact delivery have become essential to maintaining our health. Using contactless payments are almost cited as much as wearing masks, as a way to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

So there is no payment layer, it has become part of our daily lives and our environment. Apple is doing this differently than everyone else in the industry. With their own internally designed chips and software to make it all happen.

It's being incredibly orchestrated, with a slow, steady rollout of features, each having another use as they are rolled out. But these features, working in concert with all the other components and capabilities is a tremendous feat of engineering by the Apple team.

iPhone or Pro?

As you see in the video above, the LiDAR scanner included in the Pro models of iPhone 12 can quickly scan a room, mapping every detail of the contents of a room. Wow, that's great you say, but we are talking about payments and credit cards, why are you bringing this up now?

Adding LiDAR to the other puzzle pieces we have already laid out and the picture, literally, is almost complete. You see when you mix in LiDAR with the position mapping of UWB and AirTags system, you can now have a virtual reality type experience to help the buyer find what they are looking for.

How many times have you asked a clerk in a store where something is and they shout out an aisle number to you as they rush to take care of other responsibilities. You head to this massive lane of products and start looking ...

Well, with LiDAR look no more, the package will virtually pop-up, do a little dance, and wave you over to pick it up. You see, UWB gives you position but it, can't really show you when the last remaining item is hidden on a bottom shelf, all the way to the back.

Yes the LiDAR is great for taking Dolby Vision video, and still pictures, it's 3D mapping capabilities add depth and clarity to images. But it's also going to be integrated into this Apple payment ecosystem, and will have an even greater contribution than the mapping of the UWB. LiDAR will enable real-time Augmented Reality (AR), and products will come alive on your iPhone.


The standard iPhone models do not come with this scanner. Although you can scan an area with your smartphone and do AR, it's not as fast a process without LiDAR, the features won't be as rich.

Will the higher end models make you a Pro shopper? Although I don't think it separate the classes that much, I do think the additional capabilities provided by the LiDAR scanner will not only add to your shopping experience.

I think it will benefit your iPhone in many other ways - beyond shopping that make it worth the extra money. If you think you'll enjoy the high level features that the iPhone 12 Pro models deliver, I say treat yourself to the future, and go Pro or Pro Max.

Ambient Credit Card

So now you can see how Apple partnered with Goldman Sachs, a bank who had never issued a credit card before, and created an ambient credit card. With these new extended capabilities it has made the Apple Card one of the most sought after cards in the marketplace.

It's interesting that Goldman Sachs, which has always been a very traditional, white shoes kind of bank, has broken out of its mold and has invested heavily in two products that target the consumer marketplace. Both of these markets are entirely new for them and they are flourishing.

Both their Marcus lending program, and the Apple Card are both forward looking financial solutions. I think Goldman Sachs took innovation seriously, while other banks scoffed at the notion of being digital.

This is type of critical thinking has allowed them to evolve and find new markets and customers, taking part in one of the greatest things that ever happened to retail and online commerce. This is an idea whose time has come.

As you can see I've been a proponent of mobile money and payments for a long time now. But Apple has taken my own personal vision of a seamless payment world, and turned it on its head. They have created an ambient payment ecosystem, that will spread quickly, adopted worldwide.

Apple is out to sell a lot of these new iPhone 12's but the biggest part of the equation hasn't yet been released, they have been hinted at by Apple, there is rumors everywhere ... But when will they announce AirTags so we can start using all this great future forward technology?

Well the wait is almost over, although Apple has already done two events back to back this season, there are rumors circulating that there will be another Apple event on November 17th of this year. It said that they will unveil AirTags and the new Apple Silicon MacBooks, that they promised would be revealed before the end of the year.

I believe these new MacBooks will also mark the roll out of the biggest overhaul of MacOS in decades, Big Sur. This new operating system will allow all your iPhone Apps to run on the macOS.

I think we are seeing the beginnings of a whole new Apple. I think this new persona for the company will change the way that we interact with retail stores, hospitality providers and even street corner vendors. It's already begun changing the way I shop online, using Touch ID to pay for online purchases from my MacBook.

The Ambient Apple Payments Ecosystem will change the way we discover, shop, and pay. Are you ready for ambient shopping? There's an app for that!

495 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All