Google and Sprint have officially unveiled Google Wallet, an Android "digital wallet" that enables payments with a smartphone in much the same way people use credit cards today.
Rather than swiping a credit card at the cash register, you tap your phone on a retailer's NFC (near-field communications) reader. The Wallet app can be PIN locked for extra security, requiring a code to be entered on the phone for each use.
The two companies announced that Google Wallet is rolling out to all Nexus S 4G Android phones, which include an NFC chip, and they said that "hundreds of thousands" of retailers are accepting payments via the application, including American Eagle Outfitters, Macy's, Foot Locker, and Subway.
The application is designed to store and use not only credit cards, but also coupons and "loyalty cards". As of today, it can store a MasterCard from Google partner CitiBank or a pre-paid MasterCard from Google itself, but other credit cards should be included later.
Though other outfits have announced similar NFC digital wallets, Google and Sprint are the first to actually release one. "Shipping Google Wallet to Sprint is a crucial first step in creating a new way for people to use their phones to make shopping faster and easier," read a canned statement from Google vice president of payments Osama Bedier, who recently joined the company from PayPal.
"The world is on the brink of the next big shift in payments, and today's announcement demonstrates that we're making real progress in attaining the vision we share with our partners for a new and innovative mobile payments platform. We believe this is just the beginning of a transformation that's soon to come."
A list of retailers that accept payments through the application can be found here. Or you can locate participating merchants through MasterCard "Paypass locator" Android app.
As Google's rolls out the application, eligible users of the Nexus S 4G will be prompted to download it. The Nexus S 4G is what Google calls a "pure Google experience phone," meaning the software is designed by Google and Google alone. Unlike the inaugural Nexus One, it is not available directly from Google. Running Android 2.3 "Gingerbread", it's available at Sprint stores or through the Sprint website.
In July, PayPal showed off an Android widget that lets transfer money between two Nexus S Android phones via NFC by tapping the two devices together.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt predicts that a third of all shops will be able to accept NFC payments by the end of next year, but presumably, this means shops in the US. He also claims that "fraud rates are so much lower" with NFC, but it depends on what you're comparing it to. An NFC chip does make it more difficult for the bad guys to "skim" credit card numbers, but the setup is likely less secure than the chip-and-PIN arrangement now used in Europe. ®