Apple’s Passbook Problem

Company 'simply did a terrible job of releasing this platform to the masses,' says one ad exec

Headshot of David Griner

The idea is a good one.

No more digging around in your apps and emails to find an airline boarding pass, movie ticket or that digital coupon. Apple's Passbook should serve them all right up on your iPhone screen when you need them most—walking into the airport, pulling up to the theater or standing in line at the store.

But since the feature launched to tens of millions of iPhones in September as a mandatory part of the iOS6 upgrade, Passbook has been defined less by what it adds than by what it's missing. There's too few branded apps, too few active users, too little understanding among consumers and marketers alike about how and why you would use Passbook in daily life.

So far, Apple's featured list of "Apps for Passbook" in the App Store is almost laughably small. Three months after launch, there are fewer than 20 apps in Apple's curated list, and many were there on Day 1. There are many more apps out there with Passbook functionality (Apple doesn't track how many), but the "best of the best" being served up to users is a bafflingly small selection given that Passbook came standard on every iPhone 5 and literally cannot be removed from the unit.

It doesn't help that Apple's once-impeccable judgment is suddenly in question thanks to the spectacular implosion of its other big iOS6 feature addition: Apple Maps. When CEO Tim Cook issues an open letter saying he's "extremely sorry for the frustration (Maps) has caused our customers," you can forgive digital marketers for being reluctant to embrace another new feature that consumers seem underwhelmed by.

Resource Interactive's Matthew Santone is a big believer in the potential for Passbook and is actively encouraging his agency's national brand clients to use it, but he's also quick to fault Apple for how it launched the feature.

"Apple simply did a terrible job of releasing this platform to the masses," said Santone, senior designer for Resource's RI: Lab innovation division. "Apple should have included a pass redeemable at any of their retail locations for the launch of Passbook. Apple should have established strong partnerships with other brands to include other passes for the launch. And lastly, Apple should have worked closer with marketers as opposed to strictly developers for the launch. In short, Apple could have done everything and anything to have better rolled out this feature."

But his frustration with the launch aside, Santone sees Passbook as a valuable tool that brands need to try out.

"I really think there is a need here. Simplicity, efficiency and fun," he said. "There is a lot of power in being able to push coupons, updates to loyalty cards, tickets and payment options right to the lock screen of a consumer's device. Geo-locating passes is an incredibly powerful feature of the Passbook platform. Nothing could be simpler than shopping at a mall and automatically seeing the passes that are relevant to what's around me: ‘Oh yeah, I forgot I had that 15 percent off coupon at Bose. I might as well stop in.' "

That's exactly the sort of practical perk that Passbook's early adopting brands seem to love.

Online movie ticket service Fandango was a Passbook launch partner, and the company president tells Adweek that the brand's iPhone app downloads skyrocketed with the debut of Passbook. While mobile tickets were already available through the Fandango app for select theaters, Passbook simply made them easier for customers to use. When you arrive at the theater before the movie, your mobile ticket pops up on your iPhone lock screen. Swipe the icon to open the ticket in Passbook (without even having to unlock your phone), and you're good to go.

"Passbook has created excitement among movie fans about Fandango's paperless Mobile Tickets product," said Fandango president Paul Yanover. "At launch, we saw Fandango app downloads surge to be one of the top 10 most downloaded free apps in the App Store, and traffic to our iPhone app continues to be very strong. … We see mobile purchases now accounting for more than 30 percent of our overall ticket sales."

Where the convenience of Passbook really shines, though, is in the high-stress, shoulder-to-shoulder confines of U.S. airports.

"Passbook gives American Airlines customers easy access to their mobile boarding passes throughout the travel process," said Phil Easter, American's director of mobile apps. "iPhone users with American's mobile app can get through security checkpoints and board their flight easier than ever. And with location and time features, when a customer checks in for their flight, their mobile boarding pass will automatically be displayed for quick and convenient access."

And passengers aren't the only ones reaping the benefits. Like Fandango, American Airlines was excited to see a big bump in app downloads by being a featured Passbook partner at launch. In the first 10 days after Passbook's debut, 1 million iPhone users downloaded the American Airlines app, growing its audience by 25 percent to a new total of 5 million users.

"Adoption of Passbook among American's app users has been quite high," Easter said. "We have received great reviews from customers and were applauded for making it available Day 1."

In comparison to most industries, air travel brands seem to be quick converts to Passbook. But that's really not saying much. There are more travel apps using Passbook than any other category, but it's still a relatively small number.

"Only about a dozen airlines worldwide—13 to be exact, with several others having made announcements—support Passbook so far," said Raymond Kollau, industry analyst for

Thanks to Passbook's easy access to boarding passes and gate info, Kollau sees a good deal of potential for airline passengers. But he notes that just because an airline is using Passbook, that doesn't mean it's necessarily using every feature, such as time-triggered ticket popups or real-time updates on flight changes.

But perhaps the most telling fact Kollau shared about Passbook is why he's not using it. Like many wary iPhone owners, he's putting off updating to iOS6. He doesn't want to get stuck with Apple Maps.

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."