NFC, which stands for near field communications, is a wireless technology that allows you to send and receive data over short distances just by tapping or waving your phone. Google will use NFC in its Google Wallet service to enable mobile payments at the point-of-sale, as well as to deliver coupons and offers directly to users' phones.
With Sprint's update, we're now one step closer to seeing Google Wallet go live.
Google Wallet is launching first with Sprint, in partnership with issuing bank Citi and payment network MasterCard. Citi card holders will be able to register their card with the service and then use their phone anywhere MasterCard contactless terminals (PayPass) are found. However, Google will also support a "virtual" card option that lets you activate a preloaded, prepaid card within the Google Wallet application, so non-Citi card holders can try the service, too.
Payments Disruption Still Far Off
Even though the update means Google Wallet can work, it's unknown at this time how soon it will . Google said the service would launch sometime this summer, though, so it can't be much longer.
But this single launch won't immediately bring disruption to the payments industry - it's just one small, initial effort. For Google Wallet to be successful, or for any NFC-based mobile payments initiative to work for that matter, NFC has to see wider adoption by handset makers and OEMs. There are still only a handful of phones that support NFC, such as the Google Nexus S devices made by Samsung, plus the upcoming BlackBerry Bold phones (9900/9930), Nokia's Astound and some variants of the Samsung Galaxy S II.
In addition, for Google to lead in the mobile wallet space, it will need to expand its service beyond one operator, one bank and one payments network. And rollouts like that will take time, measured in months, if not years.
Google is not the only company building a mobile wallet platform. This fall, we'll see Visa's digital wallet go live and, next year, the operator-led Isis consortium will begin trials of its own mobile wallet service. There's also the elephant in the room: Apple. There have been conflicting reports as to whether the next iPhone will include NFC. Failing to do so will mean that mobile wallet innovation will be supported by nearly all Apple's smartphone rivals in some way, but it will also mean that NFC will lack the mainstream appeal and acceptance that only Apple seems to bring.