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Just Copy the Sci Fi
We've all seen or read something set in the future where characters use a device of ubiquitous function. From Star Trek's Tricorder to the jeejahs in Neil Stephenson's Anathem, the device of ubiquitous function is not only a common feature of science fiction, but one that has crept into real life in the form of a smartphone.
But in some ways our phones have surpassed their fictional forefathers: Away Teams had to sport both a Communicator Badge and Tricorder (and we hear rumors they were a serious headache to sync). Google wants to make your smartphone even more multi-functional by letting you use it to pay for stuff.
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Wallet Replacement by Google
Well, they aren't replacing your whole wallet - not yet, anyway. While the eventual goal is to have you swap your credit cards, transit pass, event tickets and more with a virtual wallet kept as an app in your phone, there is obviously a way to go before we can all avoid a physical wallet entirely. The most promising step being taken as part of the initial roll-out is the ability to link the Google Wallet app to a MasterCard account. This allows the user to pay for things with their phone anywhere they accept MasterCard's PayPass.
If you've never used a PayPass card, let me bring you up to speed. With PayPass, instead of swiping your card to pay for a purchase, you just touch the card to a reader that stores have at checkout. For purchases under a certain amount (depends on the card issuer, $25 and $50 are common) you don't even have to sign. And that is it, you are on your way. Google Wallet works the same way, but by holding the phone up to the reader instead of a card.
At this point, your thoughts are likely to turn to security. That's a very valid concern, and one that we've devoted an entire article to.
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A Rare App for Now
For the time being, the only credit cards that work with Google Wallet are Citi MasterCards, and there are some restrictions even there. You can use this tool to find out if your Citi card is eligible. If you don't have a Citi MasterCard or it isn't the right kind, you can use what Google calls a Google Prepaid Card. Essentially, you fund the Google Wallet with an existing credit card.
Then, you'll need a phone that runs Google Wallet. Here is the problem: there is one phone that does this, the Nexus S 4G from Sprint. That's it. Google, of course, wants to roll this out to more new devices, but we don't know to which ones and when, so, for the time being, you have to have the Nexus S if you want to be able to do wireless payment via Google Wallet and PayPass.
If you have a Citi MasterCard but not a Nexus S you can actually request a tag that sticks to the back of your phone. It doesn't use Google Wallet, but it does allow you to use PayPass terminals as though you had a PayPass card attached to your phone, which gives you some of the functionality of Google Wallet.
However, you will be missing some of Google Wallet's features (more on that below). The tag is also, at least going from what they have pictured online, an ugly-as-sin branding nightmare, so unless you want to show your Citi MasterCard pride like it's your school colors, the tag is best kept hidden under a case. More seriously, the tag would doubtless attract the attention of thieves. I'm hoping what is shown online is some kind of artist's rendering and the actual product offers the user more discretion.
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Adding a MasterCard to Google Wallet
This is actually really easy to do. The Google Wallet app will download to the Nexus S automatically. Open it up, then enter your card info as directed. That's it. Well not completely: at this point you can spend $100 and Citi will send you an activation code. You go back into Google Wallet and enter it, then you can access your full balance, just as you do with the card.
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Why Do I Want PayPass, Let Alone On My Phone?
At first, MasterCard PayPass seemed pretty useless, but once I used it, I realized that not having to pass your card back and forth to a clerk that swipes it actually does save time, and for small purchases where I don't have to sign, I barely slow down on my way through checkout. I've been using mine more and more often as more vendors install the readers.
When I heard Google Wallet would use a PayPass type system, I wondered what the advantage would be over a PayPass equipped credit card. Running through the process of making a purchase in my mind's eye turned up the fact that I almost always have my phone in my hand when paying for things. Leaving a store is a really common time to make a call, send a text, or check your schedule, email, or incoming texts, so you can let people know what you've just finished and see what you have to do next.
Leaving your wallet in your pocket when you are already carrying your phone and trying to pick up whatever you just bought makes a stack of sense. It actually seems like a good enough idea that, having noticed that the Citi Payment Tag appears to just be a sticker with a PayPass chip in it, I am going to experiment with keeping my (non-Citi issued) PayPass equipped MasterCard securely inside my phone's case, against the back of the phone.
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Do I Want Google Wallet?
The payment tag stickers more or less match the physical payment convenience offered by Google Wallet. This leaves two things to influence how much you want to use Google Wallet: what kind of shopper you are, and how fast Google Wallet spreads.
The more you use things like gift cards or loyalty points rewards cards, the more appealing Google Wallet gets. Retailers can partner with Google to have all of these extra cards you would have to carry, or not carry and not get the benefits of, be tracked through Google Wallet. Not only is that more convenient in and of itself, but the more you are interested in loyalty offers, the more “deal" oriented you might be, meaning the kind of person that looks for sales when shopping.
Google Wallet syncs with Google Offers. This product is still in beta, and seems very Groupon-like for now, with deals of the day for various cities, but the plan appears to be to tie it into other Google products like Search and Maps and even use the phone's GPS to ferret out super-local deals. If you like that kind of thing then, once again, Google Wallet becomes more attractive.
The other factor is how much you shop at any of Google's partners, and how fast Google can put more partners on board. One of the launch partners is New Jersey Transit. If you ride it all the time then, yup, Google Wallet gets more attractive. The more partners are added, the more people will want it, and the more people have it, the more partners will want to join.
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Back to Speculation About the Future
One can't help but engage in conjecture about how willing Google will be to share it's Wallet service with other phone manufacturers, and what they will want in return. Google makes the overwhelming share of it's money from advertising, not selling phones. They want money from merchants to be part of the service, advertised in the system, and promoted in Google Offers. Obviously this is easier to do if tons of people already have Google Wallet installed on their phone.
The fact that only one phone is currently able to support Google Wallet is a problem, and it is in Google's interest to change this. They likely will, but initially restricting the service to hardware they have intimate knowledge and control of is a sensible choice, especially on a platform as fragmented as Android. Which brings us to the next, and meatier questions: will we ever see Google Wallet running on an iPhone, and what will change hands, and in which direction, to make it happen?
- Stephenson, Neil. Anathem. William Morrow, 2008
- City Payment Tag Official, https://www.citibank.com/us/cards/svc/cbna/content/jump-page/pymnt_tagswf/
- Google Wallet Support, http://www.google.com/support/wallet/bin/topic.py?topic=19925
- Google Wallet Picks Up Steam With NJ Transit Partnership, http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/19/google-wallet-picks-up-steam-with-nj-transit-partnership/
- All Images, Trade Marks, and Logos are the respective properties of Google, MasterCard, and Citigroup.
- Google Wallet Official, http://www.google.com/wallet/
- NFC: How Apple's iPhone gains on 'Google Wallet' plan, http://blogs.computerworld.com/19162/nfc_how_apples_using_google_for_the_iphone_wallet