Apple could be planning to roll out a system that would let iPhone users lend small amounts of cash to each other on a person-to-person basis, a key step toward a mobile payments future that experts say is coming.
According to an application with the U.S. patent office that was made public last week, the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology company wants to patent something it's calling an "ad-hoc cash dispensing network."
According to the filing, the system would allow an iPhone user who finds himself or herself without cash to essentially place an order for a certain amount of cash, and add a timeframe and location, and see if anyone is willing to provide money in exchange for a small fee.
Other iPhone users in the area who have the cash and are willing to part with it could then respond, the two parties meet up and the cash is exchanged. The lender would need to have a surplus of funds in his or her account that would be deducted once it's confirmed the transaction took place.
"This digital transfer may be performed over the network … or through a local medium such as through Bluetooth or an infrared transfer mechanism included in the client terminals," reads the application, which Apple originally filed in the summer of 2011.
The borrower gets a debit from his or her account in the amount of the cash exchanged, plus a service fee — which would be split between Apple and the individual lender.
Cash not always easy to come by
Banks and wireless companies are eagerly adopting what's known as Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology that allows electronic devices to be transformed into digital wallets — customers can pay for basically anything by using digital credits that would be paid from their wireless or banking bill.
But Apple's proposed system is different from others NFC schemes in place in that it functions not on digital credits, but on cold, hard cash. Although the majority of businesses accept debit and credit cards for transactions, not all do.
"There are often situations where cash payments are necessary," the application reads.
Obtaining cash from a bank machine may be prohibitively expensive or not feasible due to a lack of machines in the area.
"Accordingly, there is a need for a cash-dispensing network that allows users to exchange cash as needed."
Although it's an innovative idea, one mobile technology expert says it has downsides.
"It certainly opens up a question of abuse, where you're advertising that you're walking around with $100 cash in your pocket," University of Toronto professor Rhonda McEwen said in an interview.
"It's interesting, because it marries NFC technology with social networks," she says. "In the old days, if you needed $20, you'd just ask your friend. But now that trust is going to come from a third party."
"It's a good idea, but whether they would ever actually develop it is a different question," McEwen said.
When contacted Thursday, a spokesperson for Apple would not comment on word of the plan.