Ever since Apple introduced Passbook as a component of its next operating system, there’s been increasing speculation that the company’s next iPhone would take advantage of NFC, a technology that lets users pay for things and exchange information with just a tap.

NFC chips are already in a handful of phones on the market — perhaps most notably the Samsung Galaxy S3. Now, photos posted to the Chinese site Apple.pro could indicate that Apple is following suit. According to AppleInsider, the photos could show the front assembly of the iPhone and a square enclosure near the front-facing camera that looks like the NFC packages in other phones.

Now, it’s hard to confirm anything about Apple and its plans, particularly based off photos that purport to show any sort of leak. But there are a few things about the smartphone landscape that indicate Apple would be smart to include an NFC-like technology.

Passbook, of course, is the most obvious reason that Apple may want to include an NFC chip in its phones. The app, announced in June at the Worldwide Developers Conference, will allow users to store loyalty cards, concert tickets, airplane tickets and other passes digitally. Add the ability to pay for things directly from the phone, and Apple will have a direct competitor to Google Wallet, and with a much more influential block of the U.S. smartphone market.

Second, there’s the competition. Much of the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy S3’s advertising campaign revolves around the advantages of the NFC chip — something anyone who saw commercials during the Olympics can tell you includes the ability to pass the Olympic flame to others who happen to have the Galaxy S3 with just a tap. Microsoft has also added a Wallet Hub that relies on NFC to its as-yet-unreleased Windows Phone 8 system. Even with a U.S. market that’s slow to adopt NFC-enabled mobile payments, Apple may not want to let this trend pass it by.

Finally, there’s the company’s goal of integration. This is clearest with the introduction of iCloud, but Apple likes to make it easy to share information across your Apple devices to keep you locked into the ecosystem. If it puts NFC in multiple devices, it will be easier to share files on your iPad with say your iPhone, your Mac or your Apple TV. Not to mention it gives you an easy way to transfer things such as business cards or contact information — which could be useful as iPhones show up more in the enterprise space.

The fly in this ointment, though, is the fact that U.S. consumers just haven’t grabbed on to mobile payments yet.

According to a survey from Google Wallet partner MasterCard, the United States is a great environment for mobile payments — Americans spend a lot of money, use a lot of tech and like new ideas. The problem is that the people with the money and people who want to try new things aren’t, by and large, the same people.

“Willingness to make mobile payments increases with income but decreases with age,” the credit card company notes in its Mobile Payments Readiness Index, on which the United States ranks third — between Canada and Kenya.

Services such as Google Wallet and the carrier-backed effort Isis have the potential to change those attitudes, the study said, but need broader support from retailers, banks, credit card companies and carriers before paying with your phone will be as natural as swiping your card. Apple could, surely, boost the awareness of mobile payments, though it remains to be seen what it could do to get more retailers on board across the country.

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