First look: Google Wallet lets you tap 'n' spend

Smartphone app is easy to use, despite some glitches

Google's smartphone payment app, Google Wallet, has brought the ease of paying for goods with the tap of a phone to America.

Google wallet
Google has officially launched its Google Wallet application.

This first rollout works great, but only if you can receive the over-the-air update of the app to a Nexus S 4G smartphone from Sprint. Then you need to find a store with a MasterCard PayPass payment terminal, which initiates a funds transfer from your credit or debit card when you tap a phone on it.

The Nexus S has a built-in near-field communication (NFC) chip and is equipped with special security technology, which makes it capable of safely supporting the short-range radio communications necessary to make in-store payments. In the future, NFC's two-way capability will allow Google and other companies to send coupons and special offers to Google Wallet users.

Since Google rolled out the app gradually, I had to wait five days to receive Google Wallet over the air in a 14.3MB update labeled Android 2.3.7 to a Nexus S 4G phone.

Once the app was loaded and initiated with a secure PIN that I created, I set out to find a store near my home in Virginia that accepted Google Wallet payments. Even though Google's website listed dozens of stores in my ZIP code that would accept Google Wallet, I had to go to five stores before finding one with a terminal that would accept it.

But the effort was worth it. When I made my first payment with a touch of the Nexus S to the terminal on the counter at my neighborhood McDonald's on Monday afternoon, the teenager selling me my grilled chicken sandwich and Coke for $6.42 exclaimed: "Wow, that's a cool phone! What phone is that?"

His boss seemed skeptical that I had actually paid, however, until my paper receipt spilled out of the register. She grabbed the receipt, examined it, and gave it to me with a grunt, while the teen smiled broadly and handed me my lunch in a perfectly folded paper bag with the send-off, "Thank-you, Mister!" (By then, it felt like I was in a Mickey Rooney movie.)

I was pretty pumped, too, which seemed silly, given all the amazing early adopter technologies I've seen over the years. Still, I went to the CVS across the street to make sure my first success wasn't a fluke. It wasn't. I easily bought a bag of M&M's for $1.22 with Google Wallet on the Nexus S. The young clerk said, "I've never seen that before, very cool."

In each case, I touched the back of the phone to the terminal near where the PayPass logo was located, and was then prompted with a slightly audible sound to input my four-digit PIN on the Nexus' touchscreen. Once I input the PIN and again touched the phone to the terminal, I got another audible indication that my payment was made. I also received a short text message on my phone saying the payment was complete, although the tiny text was hard to read.

I admit I never really felt like I'd paid, however, until a clerk in each venue carefully looked over the receipt. I also checked the receipts myself.

We in the U.S. must seem like dinosaurs to the South Koreans and Japanese, who for years have used NFC-ready smartphones to pay transit fares and make quick purchases at drugstores and newsstands.

With the introduction of Google Wallet, Google is first-to-market with an NFC payment system in the U.S., and the company seems to understand that it will take a while for the technology to mature.

Google was smart to start small, working with just one phone, (the Nexus S, for now), one carrier, (Sprint, for now) and one credit-card processor (MasterCard). According to Google, MasterCard has "hundreds of thousands" of PayPass terminals that will work with Google Wallet. Other major credit-card processors are also licensing their technology to Google Wallet, but those systems won't arrive till sometime in the future.

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