So it's been a year since Google unveiled its Google Wallet mobile payment app for Android smartphones. Just like many folks, I wanted to find out if there's anything worth purchasing with the high-tech service and if it's easier to use than traditional plastic.
The best way to really get a handle on Google Wallet, though, or any mobile payment system for that matter, is to go out and test it in the real world. So, CNET's Roger Cheng and I decided to hit the New York City pavement to see how much trouble we could get into.
Before we could begin the adventure, we needed a fresh line of funds. Unfortunately neither of us is a Citibank MasterCard holder, the only bank card Google Wallet natively supports. Fortunately, though, users have the option of adding money to the app's Google prepaid card from any other credit card. With our Google Wallet newly flush with cash and fancy HTC Evo 4G LTE in hand, we stepped out the door.
The first stop was the subway. I'd heard rumors that the NYC MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) had plans to roll out turnstiles with NFC (near field communication) technology. In fact, Google Wallet terminals are supposed to be active on the New Jersey Transit commuter system now.
As a city native, this doesn't help me, and at my local subway station there was no NFC hardware to be seen. We did see a sketchy guy in the corner riffling through used MetroCards, which made me think twice about whipping out a $300 smartphone.
A jolt of success
I can't start my day without at least one cup of joe, and I hoped Google Wallet could help me get my a.m. fix. Sadly the local Starbucks, or any Starbucks outlets, don't accept Google's mobile money since the chain has its own proprietary app for that. Undeterred, we trekked over to the nearest 7-Eleven, a newcomer to New York; according to Google's Web site, the chain is onboard.
Sure enough, when we walked in I immediately spotted two of the three coveted logos (NFC and MasterCard PayPass) by the registers. I made a beeline for the cold beverages, grabbed a can of iced espresso, then rushed to the checkout area. I expected smooth sailing but ran smack-dab into the first glitch of the day.
The payment app opened when I tapped my phone against the NFC reader but froze up completely. I actually had to reboot the Evo 4G LTE to settle the device down. After this, however, Google Wallet asked for my PIN and sent my payment credentials successfully over to the register. In all it took a good 10 minutes to resolve, which forced grumpy customers behind us to jump ahead in line.
When Roger Cheng thinks lunch, thoughts of McDonald's tend to plague him. Luckily there's one half a block away from the office. I know that Mickey D's isn't an official Google Wallet partner, but the franchise has a history of adopting new technologies, from basic cash machines to free Wi-Fi, to lure people through its doors.
Sure enough, I spotted the distinctive NFC diagram above each checkout machine. The other logos that Google says user should keep an eye out for to ensure Google Wallet compatibility were absent. These are the MasterCard PayPass and Google Wallet symbols. Still, I could hear Roger's stomach growling from 4 feet away, so we decided to order a Big Mac combo and hoped the NFC gods were smiling upon us.
I'm sorry to say they were not. While the Evo 4G LTE did automatically open the Google Wallet app, request my PIN, and tell me that payment info was sent successfully, the register never received payment. After a few tries even the friendly assistant manager who was confident that this futuristic payment system should and would work, Roger was forced to fork over his own hard-earned cash. I, for one, am glad I packed a sandwich from home.
With a work trip looming and being all out of travel-size shaving cream, I decided to pop into the local Duane Reade. Luckily for me, the drugstore chain is one of Google Wallet's primary supporters. No one seemed to have told the cashiers on duty, though. It took them a few moments for them to wrap their heads around the idea that I wanted to pay with a phone. After witnessing the swiftness and smoothness of the transaction, however, they were sold.
A nervous cab ride
Tempting fate, we then flagged down a Yellow Cab to cruise over to our next destination. Just like in any big city, NYC taxi drivers are a touchy bunch and being constantly on the clock doesn't help their disposition. I'm sure our cabbie wasn't thrilled, either, that two tech reporters piled in just to take a 5-minute trip while testing a quirky mobile payment app. Not paying with cash, though, was like adding salt to the wound.
To our driver's credit, however, he remained outwardly calm even when the Google Wallet app froze again when we reached our destination. In fact both he and I had to reboot our hardware before the payment went through. Believe me, brothers and sisters, when I say it was the longest 7 minutes we've experienced in recent memory.
A sweet mobile payment treat
To cap our wanderings we dropped by a nearby Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop. Not only does Pinkberry serve up yummy desserts, the company has jumped onto the official Google Wallet bandwagon. Despite this special relationship, my attempts to pay with the app were unsuccessful even after multiple phone reboots. It wasn't until we made a visit to another Pinkberry location did I tap my way to chilled delights without a hitch.
Since this was the first time I personally used Google Wallet out in the wild, I did experience a real thrill when the software successfully processed my payments. It's plain to me, though, that even a year after being announced, Google's phone payment system is still a beta product. Whether that's because of improperly trained clerks, glitchy code, or interference from Isis and the other big three carriers, I'm not entirely sure.