Google Wallet has launched commercially. The service was of course first announced in May and Google has subsequently been trialling it. The launch was originally scheduled for the summer so anticipation has built up. What new do we know? Well the service is now available to all those subscribers to US operator Sprint who own the NFC-enabled Nexus S 4G, the Android handset. That’s not a huge demographic. And subscribers can only at present carry one credit card in their wallets: the Citi MasterCard. And Google does offer its own pre-paid card as another option. Again this does not give the service much reach, although that situation will change. Google says Visa, Discover and American Express have all licensed the search giant so that their issuing banks can all link their cards to Google Wallet, although this process will take some months to occur. Widespread availability looks like taking its time in arriving.
Reviewers who have had experience of Google Wallet over the past week give mixed reviews, which is always the way with new products and services. In some aspects, the service ran like a dream. “When the system works as advertised, it’s a breeze. You don’t have to fumble with your wallet or pull out a card,” said GigaOm. Reviewers found that it’s easier to pull out a phone than a physical wallet, even allowing for the unlocking of the electronic wallet. The reaction from a number of reviewers seemed to be when the service is good, it’s very good.
However, the service still needs to be finetuned. “I’d also like to see my payment history actually include what I bought and where instead of just a time and an approximate location,” the same reviewer added. Having that kind of information on a handset screen would be a real differentiator from existing credit and debit cards where such information is not so accessible.
And then there is the key question of availability. “Google Wallet will not work everywhere your credit card will. It won’t work everywhere there’s an NFC-friendly card reader, either. Wallet requires an NFC reader based on a newish specification, and only a select bunch of retailers have gotten around to updating,” points out Techcrunch. There are more than 144,000 MasterCard Paypass terminals in the US where in theory the service might work but the reality is clearly lower than that figure.
And it’s not just in-store infrastructure that needs to move forward. Or the number of card providers. It’s also about the number of NFC-enabled handsets on the market. Mind you, if Google can’t ensure a sufficient number of handsets, it does have alternatives. It might be tempted into distributing NFC stickers which users can fix externally to a conventional handset, a technology that the company has shown off before.
On the other hand, SK Telecom this week unveiled an alternative approach to retrofitting. The Korean operator launched an NFC-enabled SIM that enables users with normal handsets to make use of payment services. There is however no suggestion of interest from Google, although perhaps there should be. The need for a mass technological upgrade is the barrier to Google Wallet. That at least is the charge made by Paypal against NFC. The payment giant is intent on building a service where users can make payments using their existing handsets with no need for an upgrade. That’s the competition for Google. Now it has to show it can match it.
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