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Apple Pay Tries to Solve a Problem That Really Isn’t a Problem

I recently bought a cup of coffee, but I did not have any cash handy. I used a credit card, and the result was a veritable dystopia that will surely haunt my sleep forever.

First, I had to reach into my back pocket and remove my leather wallet. Then I had to pick out a plastic card, taking care not to pull out my driver’s license or Metro fare card. Somehow I managed to succeed on the first try. Then I swiped my credit card on a device positioned near the cash register. (Should the magnetic strip face right or left? That was my horrific choice.) Then I returned the plastic card to my wallet and went on with my day, scarred yet unbroken. I understand my credit card company will be including the $2.25 I owe them for that coffee on some sort of invoice later in the month, the receipt of which will surely will be yet another brutal reminder of the burdens of that day.

I kid, of course. Charging a cup of coffee or pretty much anything else is not a big deal. At most stores it is a remarkably seamless process, particularly now that most retailers have gotten out of the habit of requiring signatures for smaller purchases. But that’s not how Tim Cook sees it.

Tim Cook introducing Apple Pay on Tuesday in Cupertino, Calif. The system would replace credit cards.

Mr. Cook, the Apple chief executive, introduced a new mobile payments service Tuesday as part of the company’s big product rollout. The idea is that instead of experiencing the misery of fishing around for a credit card, you put your phone up to a transponder and touch the screen, and your transaction is complete.

It’s a dangerous business to bet against Apple’s ability to make a product that you didn’t think you needed as part of your daily life. But “Apple Pay” looks as if it may be one of those offerings that don’t live up to the company’s hype. It would seem that in Mr. Cook’s mind, the current process of a retail transaction is something actually resembling the series of horrors described above. The core challenge Apple faces is that buying things with a credit card isn’t nearly as onerous a process as they make it out to be.

Mr. Cook showed a video at the product rollout of a woman burrowing in her purse for a credit card, navigating past a box of Tic Tacs — Tic Tacs! — and struggling to open her wallet in order to find her card, then being asked to show her driver’s license before completing the transaction. It had a lot in common, actually, with those infomercials in which actors manage to horribly bungle the most basic tasks until some new product solves a nonproblem.

Apple Pay does appear to be more secure than plastic credit cards. As Mr. Cook pointed out in the presentation, a credit card reveals all the necessary information for a thief to exploit and go on a shopping spree, whereas Apple Pay requires the purchaser’s fingerprint to run a charge. The only problem from Apple Pay: The costs of fraud are borne by credit card issuers, and sometimes retailers themselves. Just ask Target, and now Home Depot, both of which have faced huge data breaches and are paying the price.

So you can see how banks and retailers will be enthusiastic about switching to a more secure way of paying. Indeed, Apple has already lined up giant banks — including Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo — and giant retailers, including McDonald’s, Walgreens and Macy’s, to use the service.

Times technology columnist Molly Wood says consumers may see a rise in the use of mobile payments now that the iPhone has a chip that will work at tap-to-pay payment terminals. So Apple Pay certainly has the potential to revolutionize how people buy goods. But security chips widely in use in Europe are gradually becoming available in American credit cards. The recent breaches are only making that process more urgent for card issuers.

But the bigger question for Apple Pay is whether consumers find it handy enough to convert from credit and debit cards.

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