Steve Jobs' resignation as Apple Computer's chief executive may prove a mixed bag -- but a critically important one -- for banks.
Industry officials involved in mobile payments long ago stopped waiting for Apple to take the first step into the area. Yet the iconic company's influence on the financial world has been substantial—and mostly unilateral.
Apple has rarely gone public with its plans for payments. Even today, with the company rumored to be weeks away from launching the iPhone 5, few outsiders know for certain whether the handset will include a payments-capable near-field communication chip.
Apple's patents indicate that in mobile payment plans, whether based on NFC chips or some other technology, the company has the right to move ahead without the participation of banks. One of the company's clearest payments patents, made public last year, doesn't even use the word "bank" once and mentions credit cards only once.
If Apple's policies change along with top management, the company may end up in a more open relationship with banks. Any such change in Apple's payments strategy is likely to come slowly, however.
Jobs will continue with Apple as its chairman. Tim Cook, currently designated as the company's interim CEO, is Apple's longtime chief operating officer and a close Jobs confidant.
The Jobs-Cook regime has long held to the practice of acting on its own, yet its decisions have had a major influence on banking. The 2007 launch of the iPhone, followed in 2008 by the introduction of the company's app store, made mobile banking a much more viable channel than ever before.
Jobs' departure could also cast a long shadow on the nascent market for tablet banking. The iPad remains a relatively new product, and only a few banks have approached it in a substantially different way than they have other mobile devices.
The recent and highly publicized death of Hewlett-Packard's rival, the TouchPad tablet, soon after its launch last month may be a sign of how fragile the tablet market remains. If Jobs' resignation takes with it his magic, banks that are now developing software for tablets computers may find their ventures riskier than ever and need to reconsider their investments.