Apple's Worst Kept Secret: Mobile Payments

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Apple's ( AAPL) WWDC keynote went largely as expected, as the company announced iOS 7, iTunes Radio, and a new MacBook Air. Perhaps, the biggest thing to come out of they keynote address, however, were the 575 million credit cards Apple has information on.

During the keynote address, CEO Tim Cook mentioned Apple has information on 575 million credit cards in its system, via iTunes and the App Store. That's more than any other online retailer, and payments could be the next big area where Apple disrupts.

Apple having access to 575 million active accounts is significantly more than I wrote about just over a month ago, when I mentioned that Apple's next big hit product could be payments. The 575 million account figure is also tracking higher than what Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty pegs for year end (she puts the number at 600 million), noting it's "the largest credit-card linked account base making it an obvious payments platform over time." She rates Apple "buy" with a $540 price target.

In her research note, Huberty noted Apple in the past has saved big feature announcements for a hardware refresh, "most notably Siri with iPhone 4S (Oct. 4, 2011)."

Passbook, which may be part of Apple's payments initiative, received an update as part of iOS 7 that did not get mentioned on stage. It now has a QR reader, which is used to scan bar codes.

Apple has mentioned in the past that the payments industry is still in the early stages. On Apple's latest earnings call, Cook added fuel to the fire that Apple may enter the space. He emphasized that the industry is "just getting started and just out of the starting block," saying it's in its "infancy."

A recent patent was granted, further fueling speculation Apple is looking to add its own digital wallet solution. The patent is for "System and method for delivering upon request credits having monetary value to a mobile device using a communications network."

In a previous research note, Huberty has mentioned Apple's revenue from software and services is now on an annual $16 billion run rate, up 30% year-over-year. A foray into the digital wallet and mobile payments sector would only increase that figure, especially with 575 million (and counting) credit cards at its disposal.

Apple is one of the most well-known and respected brands in the world and, as the mobile payments industry continues to take shape, Apple could disrupt a whole new market. In a recent note, Citi research estimates that mobile payments "could see a transaction value of $1 trillion by 2016," though there are various wide-ranging estimates on how big it could ultimately be.

The tech giant has hinted that payments could be the next big thing as it transitions the perception about it from a hardware company into more of a software and services company. Perhaps we'll find out if payments are indeed the next big thing for Apple once the next iPhone and iPad are released, and if Apple has "one more thing" waiting.

-- Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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