Apple’s NFC Payments Play Could Make Its Wearable A Computing Friction Killer

Apple could be gearing up to make its so-called ‘iWatch’ a payment device powered by NFC, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. But including near-field communications tech in the iWatch (and the iPhone 6, too, if the report is correct) will open the door for much more than just payments, and could make the wearable an authentication device that finally convinces the consumer market wrist-based computing is something to get excited about.

WSJ says that the watch using NFC is a signal that it will factor significantly into its mobile payments play, which is rumored to be introduced at next week’s event. Watchers have long pegged Apple as readying a mobile payments program, that would let them pay for goods and other things using their existing iTunes Store accounts, and now that functionality is also apparently going to come to their wearable alongside its introduction with the new iPhone next week.

Other details revealed in the new report reflect earlier suggestions that the watch will have two different screen-sizes, and a curved LED display, along with a bevy of sensors to track a user’s health and activity. In a separate report, the New York Times claims that the new iWatch will be able to track footsteps and heartrate, with much higher accuracy than the current crop of devices. It will have a flexible display panel, they say, and use wireless charging. It’ll work with HealthKit and use Handoff to let it resume activities begun on iOS and OS X devices, and vice versa, and both phones and iWatch will use NFC.

With multiple sources agreeing on these basic facts, the potential for Apple’s wearable starts to take shape. Earlier, I’d struggled with finding a good reason to justify their entrance to this market. A payments component goes some way to help it make sense, and Apple has reportedly worked with credit card companies to ensure low fees for its use, but just the inclusion of NFC and the potential for a wearable as a convenience device that offers true cross-platform communication is a bigger selling point.

Imagine an iWatch that is a true companion, speaking to Mac and iOS devices as an assurance that a user is who they say it is – without the need for arduous processes like manual entry of passwords. That’s a big step up in terms of providing genuine convenience. Other gadgets like the Bionym Nymi authenticator band look to provide this kind of persistent identification, but Apple could achieve much of the same thing with its own wearable, removing steps and reducing friction from processes ranging from payments, to controlling a smart home (via its new HomeKit features for iOS 8), to surfacing loyalty cards and tickets via PassBook.

An iWatch with the same basic feature set as Android Wear isn’t exciting, even if it does share ties with iOS devices like the iPhone. What is exciting, in terms of the potential of a wearable to finally achieve mass market adoption, is companion hardware that makes the experience of using all other computing devices, including emerging categories like connected home gadgets, easier. As it stands, most wearables introduce a degree of complication; if Apple can simplify, as it has a habit of doing, instead of asking users to learn and make a habit out of something new, it should have a winner on its hands.