Google Wallet: Color Me Skeptical

Google Wallet, which the Mountain View-based search giant introduced earlier today, wants to change the way you pay for products and services, but I’m not sure it will. Google’s contactless near field communication (NFC) payment system currently only works with one phone and only in San Francisco and New York, but the company plans to roll it out wider over the next few months. While I do like the technology behind this system, though, I can’t help but wonder if Google and its partners aren’t just looking for a solution to a nonexistent problem here.

NFC Payments: Nothing New, Yet Hardly Successful

Contactless payments, after all, aren’t anything new. Indeed, MasterCard says that it currently has over 300,000 NFC-enabled PayPass terminals in use in the United States and that millions of U.S. consumers already have NFC-enabled credit cards. While Google’s system piggybacks on MasterCard’s solution, it is also more sophisticated, though. It will allow users to switch between different cards on their phones and also store loyalty card information, for example.

Even given these extra features, it’s hard to see how this new system will catch on, though, given that few people today complain about the burden of having to carry a credit card or two with them in their wallet. Indeed, while Google says it wants to replace the entire content of your phone with your wallet, chances are you will always have to carry a drivers’ license, cash and at least one plastic credit card with you (just in case your phone runs out of battery or the merchant doesn’t take PayPass).

More Hassle Than It’s Worth?

Also, compare the convenience of using a credit card today to using a phone-based card. Today, you get out your cards, swipe it, put it back in your wallet and walk off (and maybe sign a receipt). With Google Wallet, you have to get out your phone, turn it on, find and start the right app, select the card you want to use, and then you finally get to swipe the phone over the terminal. I’m not sure this crosses the futility boundary for most consumers.

Even With Google Wallet, You Will Still Have to Carry a Plastic Card Just in Case

Then, there is the basic chicken and egg problem any new technology faces. Until every merchant uses an NFC-enabled payment terminal, you will have to carry a credit card with you anyway. Also, if competing future NFC payment systems aren’t compatible with your Google Wallet (Visa? Apple?), you will still have to carry your regular plastic card with you as well.

For the time being, I’m very skeptical that Google Wallet will be a success in the near term (and let’s not forget that Google will have plenty of competitors as well that may not want to play nice with Google’s “open” approach).

What’s the Benefit?

Using an NFC-enabled electronic wallet simply doesn’t offer enough benefits right now, isn’t significantly more convenient than just using a credit card and depends on phones that aren’t available yet (and that can easily run out of battery).