March 1, 2024

State of the Art: Visions of a Future Where Phones Replace Wallets

Its new phone software, called Google Wallet, is intended to replace the credit cards in our actual wallets.

It does sound pretty spectacular, doesn’t it? No fishing plastic cards out of wallets, no paper slips, no signatures. Everything is handled securely, instantly, conveniently, with one tap of your phone at the register.

Europeans and Asians already routinely pay for things that way. Why can’t we have that in America?

Now you can. But there are enough footnotes to fill a podiatry journal.

At the moment, the free Google Wallet app runs on only a single cellphone model: Sprint’s Google Nexus S, which runs Google’s Android software. That’s because Google Wallet requires a special N.F.C. chip (near-field communications), and the Nexus S is one of the few phones so equipped.

Someday, Google says, many more phones will have N.F.C. chips. The company says that it’s in talks with every major Android phone maker.

The next question: Where can you use Wallet to pay for things? Google had the inspired idea of teaming up with MasterCard, which has already installed N.F.C. readers at 150,000 merchants in the United States and 230,000 overseas. You can see the black MasterCard PayPass terminals all over the place.

That’s 150,000 companies; the total number of physical stores is far higher. At the moment, they include CVS, Duane Reade, RadioShack, Sunoco, Sports Authority, Foot Locker and New York City taxis. In coming weeks, Google says, more stores will come along, including Subway, Macy’s, Walgreens and Bloomingdale’s.

Someday, Google says, the readers will be installed at cash registers all across this great land.

Think of Wallet as a copy of your actual credit card. Wherever you might swipe a credit card, you can tap your phone instead. At the moment, though, the only credit card Wallet can impersonate is a Citibank MasterCard.

Someday, Google says, all kinds of credit cards from all kinds of banks will work with Wallet.

If you don’t have a Citibank MasterCard, you can still use Wallet. On the screen where you select which credit card you want to use, you’ll find an imaginary one called Google Prepaid Card. It comes with $10 of credit — Google’s gift to you, O Early Adopter — but right there on the phone, you can preload it with more money from another credit card.

All right. So you’re in CVS or 7-Eleven, and the cashier announces the total, “$31.24.” At the exact moment when you would ordinarily swipe your credit card, you simply turn on the phone. (You don’t have to fire up the Wallet app first.) You hold it against the PayPass terminal and enter your four-digit password. The screen says “Sent,” and the terminal’s screen says “Authorizing … Approved … Balance $0. Thank you!”

Security, Google says, is baked into the system from the beginning. The phone’s N.F.C. chip is completely deactivated when the screen is off. That’s to prevent sneaky evildoers from “skimming” (reading) your credit card information.

A shame, really; Google says that the N.F.C. chip could work even when the phone was off, meaning you could keep using it to buy things. But Google chose to emphasize security over convenience; as a result, the phone is useless as a wallet once its battery is dead.

The pass code requirement is intended to prevent people from buying stuff with your phone if it’s lost or stolen, since they won’t know the code. (And if they guess wrong five times in a row, the whole Wallet becomes unusable. You have to contact Google and explain yourself.)

Of course, the four-digit pass code requirement also sucks most of the fun and convenience out of the whole phone-as-wallet concept. Tapping out the pass code on small keys on a not-always-responsive touch screen is a hassle, and not demonstrably faster than signing a regular credit card slip. Why can’t we disable that requirement according to our own paranoia levels?

You can’t even pick an easy-to-type pass code to save yourself effort; Wallet won’t accept codes like 1234 or 1111.


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