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Google Wallet unofficially launches, but NFC adoption still faces challenges; UPDATE: How to enable Google Wallet

nfc google walletIn what appears to be a soft launch, the Google Wallet is unofficially here. Various NFC-enabled registers have been identified, from American Eagle to Peet’s Coffee, despite the lack of any announcement from Google itself. TechCrunch also revealed an internal email discussing the product launch for today, and of course the fact that the NFC World Congress begins tomorrow also points to the arrival of Google Wallet.

What Google has announced are a few new details regarding the service. As has been speculated, Google Offers will automatically sync to your Google Wallet account making it easier to cash in on your coupons. The specifics of how its security works have also been revealed, and Google says the precautions it’s taking make using Google Wallet more secure than traditional credit and debit cards.

Hearing about mobile wallet-friendly shops in your area and getting a glimpse of what your Android will be able to do shortly is all very exciting stuff. But let’s take a moment to remember there are a few barriers between us and widespread adoption.

Hardware

At the moment, the only Google Wallet-compatible phone is the Nexus S 4G – which is only available on Sprint. In fact, in order to use Google Wallet at this very moment, you would have to own the Nexus S 4G and a Citi MasterCard. The Nexus Prime, which should be available next month, will also have tap-to-pay capabilities. But that’s it, at least when it comes to Google Wallet’s offerings. And that brings us to…

Fragmentation

Of course Google Wallet and Android aren’t the only NFC interested parties out there. RIM will launch this feature on a numbers its new handsets, but it doesn’t have a property like Google Wallet to partner with credit card companies and give users an easy way to access the service. There’s also the possibility Apple will be including a mobile wallet application in the iPhone 5. And we’re guessing Google Wallet isn’t going to be collaborating with rivals like Apple and RIM on this service. Which means that NFC-enabled modules will need to accept more than Google Wallet payments, and that translates to more time and money invested into making that effective and promoting the expanded services. Right now, consumers are barely aware of Google Wallet and its fledgling attempts at NFC payments. If every handset maker has its own mobile payment property and system, initializing, advertising, and building these into terminals could lead to fragmentation. It’s all new territory that no one quite knows how to handle yet.

User adoption

Despite the increasing amount of publicity mobile payment is getting, experts still say we’re a long ways off. Consumers may be hearing more and more about it, but changing the set model of how we pay for things is much harder than just letting us know about this new option.

There are also competing technologies. Bluetooth 4.0 could easily challenge NFC, as it can accomplish the same purpose (and Apple is rumored to be considering adopting this method over NFC).

We’re witnessing the beginning of a potentially dramatic shift in how we pay for things and it’s encouraging that a company as big and influential as Google is making such a targeted move at this industry, and has other properties like Google Maps and Google Offers to tie into Wallet. A more fully-featured service is going to be a more attractive one, and despite everything that stands in its way, the possibilities are exciting.

UPDATE

Now that Google Wallet enabled-terminals are being spotted, here’s how you can see if your Nexus S 4G is able to sport the feature. 

1. Open settings. 

2. Find “build number.”

3. If it reads GWK74, you’re all set. If not, you’re going to have to wait until the phone gets an OTA update.