Google Wallet: Search giant introduces automatic cellphone payment system


Stephanie Tilenius, vice president of commerce and payments at Google, speaks at an event in New York where Google Wallet was unveiled. (Guy Calaf/BLOOMBERG)

Google unveiled a new digital wallet program Thursday that enables a cellphone to act just like a credit card, giving the search giant its first footing in the business of providing consumer financial services.

A chip inside new Android phones — for now, only one model has it — will allow shoppers to wave their devices in front of a reader to pay for clothes and food at the mall or grocery, the company said. Eventually, Google said, it envisions the cellphone to act as a personal financial hub for coupons, merchant loyalty points, payments and receipts.

The company also announced that Google Offers, a coupon service to compete with discount sites such as Groupon or LivingSocial, will be tested in select cities.

The idea of mobile payments has intrigued smartphone makers such as Apple, Research in Motion and Google — and worried credit card firms. Until now, the cost of installing payment chips has kept carriers from signing on, as has haggling over how the transaction fees should be divided, said Michael Grossi, a telecom analyst at Altman Vilandrie & Co.

For now, Google has decided not to take a cut of these fees, which generate billions of dollars for the likes of Visa, American Express and J.P. Morgan Chase. Instead it will rely on revenue generated by the increase in traffic to its Web sites, its new coupon initiative and the sale of more Android phones.

Yet Google may face a challenge in persuading consumers to entrust the company with their financial information, some analysts said.

Social-media expert Josh Mackey said transparency for Google is key, particularly after its settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over whether it violated consumers’ privacy when it launched its social networking service Buzz.

“They know that all eyes are going to be on them,” Mackey said.

In a frequently-asked-questions page on the Google Wallet site, Google said it will not have access to users’ financial information or purchase history. The company will record the time of a purchase locally on a user’s phone and have access only to which coupons a user has redeemed.

When asked if Google will be using the data for targeted advertisements, Google spokesman Nathan Taylor said, “No, we are not.”

Google’s electronic wallet will launch over the summer, with trials beginning in San Francisco and New York City. Sprint’s co-branded Nexus S 4G already has the payment chip inside.

Users will need to download the Google Wallet application to begin using the service. The first retailers that will accept the mobile payments include Macy’s, Subway, Walgreens, Toys “R” Us, Bloomingdale’s and Guess. The service can be linked directly to a Citi MasterCard, a Google partner in the initiative. Separately, the balance on Google Wallet can also be funded from any credit card.

Google said the chip cannot be accessed by passersby or by malicious software applications designed to steal information.

Users need a PIN to access the app, and financial data are stored on a tamper-resistant chip isolated from the phone’s hardware and software, MasterCard spokeswoman Joanne Trout said. At the point of purchase, the transmitter sends a unique, dynamic account number to verify the transaction.

“At the end of the day, it’s the same as a card,” Trout said. “If there are fraudulent purchases, customers have zero liability.”

The success of MasterCard’s PayPass system — which allows shoppers to simply tap their cards on a reader rather than swipe — shows there is demand for “contactless” payments.

“There will be demand for this technology as long as there are enough retailers and enough phones,” Grossi said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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