NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Call Google Wallet protean tech, because it changes shapes faster than an amoeba - but now in its latest iteration Google Wallet seeks to be just about everything to everyone. This means we have to ask, does anyone actually need it?
You can store loyalty points in its apps varieties (newly available for basically all Android phones as well as iPhone). You can use it to make purchases with tap and pay Near Field Communication technology (if you have a compatible Sprint phone). And - here is the big news - there now even is a plastic debit card that is accepted wherever MasterCard is, and that is just about everywhere.
Tempted? Know that early commentary by experts has been mainly tepid, with a few heaping doses of outright scorn on Google's latest mobile wallet gyrations.
But so what? The cost of this plastic Google Wallet is free and, because it is a prepaid card, there is no need to pass a credit check. Sign up online (the process takes a few seconds) and, within a week or two, it will pop into your mailbox.
That card represents a monster change for the Mountain View behemoth, A year ago, Google Wallet was a Near Field Communications tool for tap and pay at a handful of participating national merchants (such as Whole Foods and Jamba Juice). It ran only on a few Sprint phones (it was banished from Verizon and AT&T phones, which have the competing Isis payments tool) and on Google's own Nexus tablets. Usership was never announced, but no one who follows the space ever thought it was more than a minor blip in the payments universe.
Some experts even have claimed that Google's latest gyrations are a vivid proof that no one wants a mobile wallet and thus, to keep an oar in the payments waters, Google is forced to hand out an oldfashioned plastic debit card.
It gets worse. Drew Davidson, with digital design shop AKTA, sniffed: "This has no chance of succeeding. What they are doing now is the antithesis of what they had been."
He has a point. In its prior iteration - the pay by mobile phone version - this was the anti card company. And so why does it now have a card?
Best guesses are that the card exists so that Google Wallet might in fact cling to a sliver of awareness in the payments space.
But is this the kind of awareness Google wants?
"The value proposition [for the Google debit card] is unclear," said Anisha Sekar, an expert with NerdWallet, who said that to her what kills the Google plastic is that, although users can withdraw monies from their Google Wallet via thousands of ATMs (that work with MasterCard) and Google won't charge a penny, each of those withdrawals nonetheless will cost the user some three dollars in fees imposed by the ATM owner. No free ATM network access currently is associated with the card. "My recommendation is to skip Google Wallet," said Sekar. "There is no incentive for carrying it."
Greg Garson, an associate partner in the High Start Group, agreed. "The biggest challenge facing the Google Wallet Debit Card is that it is entering a crowded marketplace," he said. "Debit cards already exist in spades."
There are racks of them in any Walmart, and some - like American Express's Bluebird - are free. Some - again like Bluebird - offer free ATM withdrawals in at least some cases.
Garson added: "To answer your question: will the Google Wallet Debit Card catch on? In my opinion, no. For now, Google's best hope is to simply hold on in the payment space until it can encourage more widespread adoption of Google Wallet technology - without the card."
"Google Wallet is still a work in progress," said Sean Casto, a technology executive and the CEO of the Boston based Preapps.com. "Ideally, it would encompass all aspects of the buying experience from actual payment all the way down to coupons and loyalty programs. Right now they are still working out the kinks."
Are you patient enough to give Google time to do exactly that?
In Mountain View, the betting is that Google will get all the time it needs, mainly because nobody else is exactly setting the mobile commerce/digital wallet world on fire.
That looks like a smarter and smarter bet.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet