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

Smartphone app is easy to use, despite some glitches

September 28, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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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