The breathless hype around Apple Pay among technology insiders and security fanatics doesn’t seem to be matched by iPhone users.
On Monday, at a technology conference organized by the Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that Apple had activated 1 million credit cards in the first 72 hours after Apple Pay launched.
See also: Apple Pay: I’m Not Impressed
That sounds impressive—until you consider that there are more than 600 million credit and debit cards in the United States, and Apple has sold an estimated 20 million Apple Pay-compatible iPhone 6 and 6 Plus units.
There are some factors limiting Apple Pay’s reach. Not all banks work with Apple Pay yet, and Apple Pay is only available in the United States. Also, some users likely added more than one card to their Apple Pay wallets. So it’s difficult to come up with a clean figure for Apple Pay’s market share among eligible iPhone 6 users.
Nevertheless, it’s clearly a pretty small portion of the iPhone universe. So much for the grand theories about Apple leveraging its 800 million credit and debit cards on file with iTunes to take over the world of payments. Or for the notion that transaction fees from Apple Pay will make up a substantial revenue stream for Apple anytime soon.
Credit Where It’s Due
Give Apple credit: It’s punching far above its weight in payments, thanks to the power of its brand name.
But it will ultimately take more than the gee-whiz novelty factor of paying with a phone tap or fearmongering about the security of credit cards to get consumers to switch from their existing payment routines.
Before you start ranting about how Apple Pay is more secure, let’s get some things out of the way. Yes, Apple’s technique of disguising account numbers is a wise practice that we will see broadly adopted across many payment methods. Yes, the concerns about magnetic-stripe cards are real and legitimate, given the breaches at major retailers like Target and Staples. No, those concerns will not, by themselves, prompt most consumers to switch away from swiping their cards.
Instead, it will take substantial incentives, as banks themselves seem to realize. Wells Fargo is offering cardholders $20 to sign up for Apple Pay. Other banks may follow, if they haven’t already. What’s in it for them? By setting their cards up as the default choice in Apple Pay, banks hope to win a bigger share of customers’ spending.
Even then, we may not see widespread adoption for Apple Pay and other swiped-card alternatives until October 2015, when merchants and banks will have a hard choice: Either they must take on the risk of credit-card fraud, or adopt more secure systems like Apple Pay and new chip-based cards.
As Apple executive Eddy Cue wisely said on the day Apple Pay launched, “There’s a lot to do here and we have a lot of work to do.”
It does no one any good to exaggerate the significance of Apple Pay’s early adoption. A million cards sounds like a lot—until you realize the vast scale of the payments world Apple is playing in. (PayPal’s Braintree unit, for example, has 85 million cards on file.)
The right way to think about Apple Pay is as a catalyst for further changes in the payments landscape. By getting banks and retailers to work together on a new technological scheme for payments, Apple has broken the logjam. A flood of change is coming. It just may not all bear the Apple logo.
Lead photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite