My experience with iOS 6 Passbook

I recently took a vacation where I flew on United, stayed in an apartment I rented on AirBnb, and drank coffee at a Starbucks. I didn’t plan it out this way, but all three of those companies happen to be some of the first to take advantage of the new iOS 6 Passbook feature, and I have to say, the experience was pretty great.

What is Passbook? Passbook, added in iOS 6, is a new kind of app and is therefore often misunderstood. Passbook-enabled apps do not automatically show up in Passbook. It is a repository for a particular type of new document. These documents can come from an app, from an email, or from a website. The documents can be a ticket, boarding pass, gift card, coupon, customer rewards card, etc.

Why is it better than a paper ticket? There are several advantages: no printer required, fewer tags on your keyring, passes are location/time aware so they only appear when needed, and they can automatically update your account balance, gate number, etc.

But there are disadvantages, right? Of course. The most obvious is that if your battery goes dead no more Passbook. And of course you’re relying on a new infrastructure. Fortunately, there are usually workarounds in case it breaks down: the cashier can use your phone number in lieu of a rewards card and you can always print a paper boarding pass at the airport.

United Airlines: United added Passbook support while I was waiting for my return flight home, after I went through security, so I never got a chance to see how the TSA checkpoint handles it. When I loaded the United mobile app, I was presented with an electronic boarding pass. At the top of the pass I tapped the button to add the boarding pass to Passbook. The boarding pass appeared on my lockscreen. A quick swipe of the item reveals the pass and increases the brightness to maximum for easy reading by the scanners. No unlocking required. So quick and easy! This notification on my lockscreen was persistent, so even if I unlock and use my phone it comes right back. It didn’t alert me or vibrate or anything, so it wasn’t annoying – it was just there for when I needed it. When my boarding group was called I got in line and approached the gate. I swiped my pass open and held my iPhone out to the United employee taking passes. He gestured toward the scanner. I put my iPhone under the scanner and it immediately beeped and I boarded. My second pass appeared on the lockscreen a few hours before my connecting flight.

My only complaint was that it didn’t automatically update with the gate number as was advertised. When my phone got the boarding pass the gate was still undetermined. So I had to look at one of the plasma panels the old-fashioned way. It was only later that I discovered that a manual refresh can be done by tapping the italic “i” and then pulling down on the card. I don’t know if that would have updated the gate number or not.

AirBnb: For the uninitiated, AirBnb is a property rental website/app where anyone can list a place to rent out. It can be a sofa, a spare room, a private apartment, a whole house, or sometimes even a castle, a treehouse or an igloo. No, really! Prices are competitive or better than a hotel, and you certainly get a more authentic local experience. One of my favorite aspects is that hosts are usually excessively helpful with telling you their favorite local restaurants, etc. They do what they can to get positive reviews since more good reviews means more renters.

AirBnb’s implementation of Passbook allows you, as the tenant, to add a your upcoming rental to Passbook so that whenever your iPhone detects that you are at the property a notification pops up (no sound or buzz so it’s unobtrusive). A quick swipe reveals all of the information provided by the property owner including, in my case, the door access code. I didn’t have to hunt for a piece of paper or dig through my emails.

Starbucks: In its most simple form, the Starbucks Passbook document is just your gift card barcode and automatically updated balance. If you want to get fancy you can add “favorite” cafe locations within the Starbucks app which means the pass will pop up on your lockscreen when you are at one of your favorite Starbucks locations. When you leave the location it disappears so there is no need to clear the item from your lockscreen. I’ve been using the virtual card from within the Starbucks app for over a year now, and every corporate Starbucks store I’ve been to has readers that are capable of reading your iPhone screen. Occasionally the franchises such as the ones in a Target or a supermarket have to key the number by hand. It’s a rather long number so in that case I usually just apologize and hand them my credit card.

Now if only I could use the app to place my order.

What apps support Passbook? The number is small but growing. As of today these are some of the big ones:

  • Starbucks – view and use your card balance
  • Walgreens – view and use your rewards card
  • Target – coupons
  • Sephora – view and use your Beauty Insider card
  • AirBnb – view your upcoming rentals
  • United Airlines – boarding pass
  • American Airlines – boarding pass
  • Lufthansa – boarding pass
  • Eventbrite – tickets
  • Fandango – movie tickets, currently limited to only a few theaters, but expanding
  • LivingSocial – vouchers
  • Live Nation & Ticketmaster – tickets for participating venues, DC area venues currently include The Warner Theater and The Fillmore Silver Spring
  • AMC Theaters – movie tickets
  • Expedia Hotels – save info on your reservation for easy access
  • American Express – this one is a bit different. It’s not integrated into the app. If you visit from Safari on your iPhone you just provide your credit card info and American Express creates a pass for your Passbook which automatically updates showing your current balance and recent charges.