Apple’s pending point-of-sale revolution

This morning, while I was getting gas, I noticed that the price had dropped since the day before. Sweet! I thought. Free dollar! Okay, I didn’t exactly think that, but it sounded cooler than, Huh. Nice.

Anyway, as I was sitting there waiting for the inexorably slow pump to fill my car, I started thinking about services like GasBuddy. If you’ve not heard of GasBuddy, it’s a website and corresponding mobile app that lets you search for the lowest price in gas near your location before filling up. It’s pretty handy, especially on road trips since it can help you determine which cities are the best to stop for gas before moving on, saving you money on the trip and ensuring you don’t run out of gas before you reach the next waypoint.

The problem with GasBuddy is that it requires a real-life human being to observe the price, check the GasBuddy app or website to determine if it has changed, and then update it. It’s a less-than-ideal situation that requires someone to be passionate about the app to make sure it’s up-to-date. Whomever you are out there updating this database for me, I thank you.

However, Apple could change all that very, very soon. With Touch ID on the iPhone 5s, Apple is positioning itself to become the ideal point-of-sale for businesses. Using Bluetooth 4.0 LE, your iPhone could automatically pair with the payment system at the pump, prompt you to provide authentication with your fingerprint, then bill your card on file in iTunes, all without ever taking your wallet out of your pocket or purse. But this can go even a step further. Imagine that when I pay at the pump, Apple takes information like the location of the store and the price-per-gallon and automatically updates an online database, allowing iOS users to quickly find the cheapest gas in their area and know that it’s almost certainly going to be accurate. Going a step further, Apple could also find out how quickly customers get in and out of the pump area, so you know how busy the station is. Your morning commute might be less frustrating if you can find the fastest gas station, assuming you don’t mind paying a little extra for your gas.

Now let’s go out even further. Retailers supporting iPhones for payment would likely send itemized receipts to customers through Apple’s payment system. This gives Apple information on the prices of every product you purchase, which could again be dumped into a searchable database, allowing you to find the best price on any item you wanted to buy. Got some grocery shopping to do? Make your grocery list and let Apple tell you which store is going to cost you the least. Or hell, it could even split up the list between multiple stores and tell you if it would be cheaper to drive to each one (based on current gas prices in your area) and how long it will take. With Apple’s mapping service, your iPhone could even tell you if you’re likely to hit traffic and to recommend the best time of day to make your shopping excursion (maybe even give you an alert if a sudden rush of customers hits a specific store, letting you know that maybe you should just wait until tomorrow).

A lot of people are terrified of sharing this kind of data, and in many cases you should be. Something like this should be dependent on anonymized information, preventing any purchase data from being tied to an individual user (except in the case of itemized, digital receipts, which should be opt-in only). But imagine the possibilities.’

I don’t expect to see this come this year in iOS 7, but I believe with iBeacons and Touch ID, Apple is laying the groundwork. We’ll see a few retailers try to implement their own systems with these existing tools while Apple continues to look for the best way to take the whole pie in one swoop. I’ll be very keenly interested in what will be possible when Touch ID has trickled down to the “free” iPhone.

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