Mobile payments may be coming to a phone near you but, in the real world, can you actually walk out of your office and blow $100 using only your phone?
One rainy Wednesday in New York, I left my trusty leather wallet behind, slipped Google smartphone Nexus S in my pocket and endeavored to find out.
The Nexus phone comes loaded up with Google's Wallet app, arguably the most advanced mobile-payment system in the U.S. to date. Transforming smartphones into wallets at the point of sale is the focus for a range of companies right now, from U.S. carriers AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to credit-card companies and startups.
Google has financial heavyweights Citibank and MasterCard in its corner, and the likes of Macy's , American Eagle Outfitters, Jamba Juice and Subway already testing the system. The Nexus S lets customers tap to pay for items like T-shirts, taxis and smoothies.
But does it work?
After loading Google Wallet with $90 via credit card -- that 's $100 with the $10 Google puts on every Wallet app that hits the market -- I set out to spend it. (If I had a Citi MasterCard, I could've entered account details into the app instead of pre-paying.)
My first stop was American Eagle Outfitters in Times Square. A gaggle of Google representatives, identified as such with white T-shirts emblazoned with Wallet logos, were gathered by shelves full of Nexus phones that were being sampled by curious consumers.
I woke up the Nexus, entered my PIN and tapped. A 15%-off coupon immediately loaded.
After finding the 30% discount on a display by men's coats, I headed for the dressing room. Emerging with two pairs of jeans -- OK, fine, jeggings -- it was time to pay.
The first attempt to pay with Wallet failed. The cash register had deducted my offers, but didn't take any money. The cashier called to the nearest Google rep.
The cashier then confided: "Ever since this Google thing, there's been lots of problems."
After a bit of fumbling and rebooting, the transaction finally cleared. The phone declared "Sent!" and I'd spent my first mobile $41.80.
So it was time for a snack.
I walked a bit off course to the Jamba Juice near Macy's with another coupon I'd already saved to the phone -- $2 for a small all-fruit smoothie. I ordered and braced myself when it was time to make the purchase.
"I want to pay with this," I said, holding up the phone.
"You're the first person to ever use it!" the cashier squealed. She knew exactly what it was; her manager had told her what to expect. After touching the phone to the credit-card reader, the transaction processed at the offer price.
The successful purchase of a refreshing drink was enough to embolden me for entering the hardest place for New Yorkers to shop: the Herald Square Macy's , a place known for unhelpful salespeople, mass confusion and crowds.
I beelined for the Mac makeup counter. "I'm going to pay with this," I warned, before even finding my pressed powder. The black-clad battalion of salespeople cooed. I had a 15%-off coupon for Macy's on the phone, but this time the transaction cleared without the deduction. It's supposed to happen all together; that 's the beauty of an app that replaces your entire wallet.
But while I didn't save the couple bucks, I did feel like a bit of a smartphone rock star. People loved that this phone worked as a credit card, right there at the registers.
"I don't like carrying a lot of stuff," my cashier said. "Do they have it for iPhone?"
Afraid not. While Google steams ahead full force with Wallet, only one new, hot smartphone this holiday season -- Samsung's Nexus Galaxy -- will have the tap-to-pay chip. The brand-new iPhone 4S and the Droid Razr from Motorola do not. The Nexus S is one of only a handful in the U.S. with a near-field communication chip that makes tap-to-pay possible; however, other manufacturers have NFC phones in the pipeline. And Sprint's the only provider offering Wallet.
With $30.98 left to spend, I was getting hungry.
I hoofed over to the specific Subway location noted on my mobile coupon for 15% off a $5 footlong. At the register, the frazzled employee frowned when I held up the phone. He stared, puzzled. "Only swipe," he said. No tap terminal -- only room for plastic cards and cold, hard cash. I had neither.
It was time to go home.
New York taxis, thankfully, have touch-to-pay screens, so I hailed one in my attempt to use the last $30, and $14.16 later, I pulled out the phone. It worked, and the cabbie exclaimed in delight: "So smart!"
Rejuvenated, with mobile money left to burn, I about-faced to the corner Duane Reade. Google Wallet is accepted at these drugstores, though there is no special partnership.
I bought batteries and gum, which helped me blow through $100 in three hours, with 30¢ to spare.
Wallet's killer app, without a doubt, was the sheer joy it elicited in witnesses. Google Wallet is tech at its best, but getting the right phones in shoppers' hands will be a problem. While smartphones are flying off the shelves, few have the right chips. There's also all the cashiers in need of training and legacy points-of -sale in need of updating. While it was easy to spend $100 after planning the right route, this city's also known for its cash-only restaurants, bodegas and coffee carts.
There's also that pesky driver's license, which makes my wallet a must-carry.
And in its defense, that tattered leather thing won't ever run out of battery life.