Apple's Passbook app, which arrived last September, was supposed to make life easier by storing digital versions of customer loyalty cards, airline boarding passes and electronic movie tickets in one place on the iPhone or iPod Touch.
This is the way it was supposed to work: Need that bar code thing Fandango sent when you bought the advance ticket for the latest "Die Hard" movie? No need to fumble around in your e-mail in-box or try to find the Fandango app among the 107 icons scattered across your phone. Simply tap open the Passbook app from the first Home screen, locate the Fandango electronic ticket inside and hold your phone up to be scanned by the attendant.
Here's what happens to most people: "What bar code? Where on the phone? Huh?"
Passbook, it turns out, is not so easy to use. In its original iOS 6 incarnation, the app displayed an opening screen that pointed the way to compatible App Store programs -- but then that screen went away after you downloaded an app. (In Apple's defense, its help documentation for iOS 6 also pointed the way to itunes.com/passbookapps, but really, who even knew that an online manual existed?)
A subtle change in the new iOS 6.1 software, released last month, makes things easier. Instead of disappearing, Apple's "Welcome" card, with a link to the compatible apps collection, now stays inside Passbook. To find friendly apps, you have to open Passbook itself, tap the Welcome card and tap your way to the App Store.
Apple is not alone in trying to organize cards, coupons and tickets. Samsung announced plans for its Samsung Wallet app this week for its phones and Microsoft already has a similar Wallet app for its Windows Phone software (bit.ly/SP7l1o). The Google Wallet app (google.com/wallet) goes a step further and stores credit and debit cards as well -- and can pay for purchases with a tap if the merchant is set up for it -- but apps like PassWallet (attidomobile.com/portfolio/passwallet) let Android handset owners use Apple's Passbook passes on their phones.
Only about 20 companies have joined Apple's efforts, which tells you that the problem with managing Passbook isn't you, it may be Apple's not communicating well. Fandango, Starbucks, Walgreens, Sephora, Office Depot, Target, Major League Baseball and Ticketmaster can be placed in Passbook. In the travel department, Amtrak, American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, Air Canada and Lufthansa have apps that deposit electronic tickets in Passbook.
You see, you aren't doing anything wrong if you are wondering why your favorite airline or store isn't in there. That's pretty much the list after all this time.
So once you find and download a Passbook-enabled app to your iPhone or iPod Touch, what happens next? That depends. Apps that provide permanent loyalty cards handle things differently than apps that provide single-use documents like concert tickets.
When you download an app for a specific store (let's say Walgreens here, because it has more than 8,000 outlets nationwide and you can't go a block in some parts of New York City without running into one or its subsidiary, Duane Reade), you typically have the chance to sign up for a "rewards" program within the app. In the case of the Walgreens app, tap the Rewards icon and tap Join Now on the next screen to sign up for a free account. Once you sign up, the app asks if you'd like to have a virtual rewards card added to Passbook.
Now, when you're checking out with your purchases, just grab your iPhone or iPod Touch, tap Passbook, tap the Walgreens pass inside and hold it up to be scanned, just as you would with an old-school wallet card. You get your loyalty points without having to weed through your billfold for a buried slice of plastic.
Have a Walgreens rewards card you got at the drugstore years ago? Just find the card, open the Walgreens app, tap Rewards and on the next screen, tap the Scan Your Card option. Point the iPhone or iPod Touch camera at the bar code on the back of the Walgreens card to scan in the number. The app asks if you'd like to add the card to Passbook and once you agree, the electronic version of your Walgreens card moves in.
The Starbucks app offers a similar digital conversion for its prepaid coffee cards. If you have both the Starbucks iOS app and a Starbucks card, just open the app and tap the My Card icon. Tap the "+" icon in the top right corner to get to a screen where you can type in the card's number and eight-digit code.
Apps that dispense tickets -- those from the airlines, Amtrak, live-events companies and Fandango -- deposit their passes into Passbook when you make the specific purchase. With the Fandango app, for example, tap the Account icon and then tap Purchases. Tap the name of the movie you're going to see, the mobile ticket bar code and an Add to Passbook option. (If your tickets don't show up in Passbook, make sure the theater is set up to take "mobile tickets.")
You're not limited to making purchases within a company's iOS app just to get the easy transfer of the tickets to Passbook, either. For purchases made on the Web, companies can also issue Passbook-ready tickets and boarding passes by sending them as links in text messages or e-mail attachments for downloading on the iPhone or iPod Touch. So when you get that flight confirmation e-mail from the airline for the flight you're taking tomorrow, check the message for a boarding-pass attachment that you can download on your phone and stick in Passbook.
Keep in mind that the apps themselves don't get filed in Passbook, just the "passes" they generate when you buy a ticket, add a loyalty card or sign up for another integrated service. While your passes stay in Passbook, you can still go back to the original app for its other features like prescription-label scanning for refills at Walgreens or to reload more money on your Starbucks card.
Some Passbook-enabled apps let you specify your preferred store locations within their settings. If the company has enabled location services for its digital documents (and you have Location Services turned on in your iOS privacy settings), passes in Passbook pop up on the iPhone or iPod's Lock Screen when you're nearby. That can be annoying or come in handy at the cash register or ticket counter because you don't even have to open Passbook to find the pass -- just swipe it open from its icon on the Lock Screen.
To adjust the individual settings for each ticket or card in your Passbook, tap an item and then tap the small "i" in the bottom right corner. In the settings area, you have options for showing the pass on the Lock Screen, as well as receiving automatic updates from the merchant when new coupons or other information is available.
Need to delete a card from Passbook? Just tap that "i" icon on the front of the card and after it animatedly flips around, tap the trash-can icon in the upper left corner.
Passbook may not be ready for everybody, but if you shop at stores or buy tickets from companies that have compatible apps, it can be a nice convenience. As more Passbook-integrated apps appear, you'll even carry less weight around because your wallet or key chain should lighten up as more plastic tags and printed documents go to live inside your iPhone or iPod.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.