Google Wallet: Good News and Bad News

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Google Wallet is Google’s payment processing system. There’s an online version and an Android app that runs on certain phones with specific hardware and lets you use your smartphone like a credit card.

In the past we’ve described Google Wallet as “the coolest app that you can’t have” because it’s been limited to a very few phones on only a couple carriers.

What have been the problems?

First of all, your phone has to have an NFC chip and a “secure element”. Today, not many phones have the necessary hardware, and ironically, some phones have the hardware built-in, but it’s sitting dormant.

Android phones that we know have NFC include the Nexus S and Nexus S 4G, Galaxy Nexus, and Galaxy S II Skyrocket (though it’s reportedly dormant in this phone).

vending machine


The Good News

Google recently got in bed with carriers to allow the app to be used on their networks. Previously Sprint was the only carrier that allowed the app to be installed. Now AT&T and T-Mobile allow the app, and phones on the Verizon network can side-load the app without jumping through any special hoops. You can probably download Google Wallet from the Play Store now!

To encourage adoption, Google will even give you a free US$10 when you add a Google pre-paid credit card to Google Wallet!

How does it work? Very, very well! Pocketnow’s Michael Fisher recently took Google Wallet for a test-drive on his Verizon Galaxy Nexus. His conclusion: Google Wallet is Easy and Awesome. If you haven’t checked out his video, it’s well worth your time!

The Bad News

Other than the hardware limitations, there are geographical restrictions as well. Currently Google Wallet works in the USA, but you probably can’t get it outside the States.

The start was somewhat rocky and some “questionable security” issues were raised. Google disabled signups for their pre-paid credit card while they fixed problems, then offered users another $5 free for the inconvenience.

Many power-users, eager to try out Google Wallet on their “unsupported” devices, used various methods to “hack” the app onto their phone. (I was one of them.)

Power users are the kinds of people who root their phones, install custom ROMs, and do all kinds of stuff that “normal” people don’t. We’re also more likely to get “developer” phones, or “pure Google” phones — like the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus S before it. We’re also the early adopters that try out new stuff first — like using your phone as a credit card.

Google Wallet stores your credit card information in the phone’s “secure element“. When you set up Google Wallet, the app essentially “pairs” with the secure element and gets some type of authentication key which it uses to access to the data in the “secure element”. If you don’t go through the right process when uninstalling the app, or before flashing a new ROM, your app won’t have that key, and your secure element will stop responding. It happened to me, but I couldn’t get any support because my GSM Galaxy Nexus was on T-Mobile, which wasn’t supported until just recently.

secure element not responding

With a newly “supported” phone, I decided to call Google Wallet support and see what they could do for me, and try and get to the root cause of the “secure element not responding” error.

I spoke with a very helpful woman. She was informative, professional, and was able to field my questions very well. I volunteered that I was using a CyanogenMod Nightly and was immediately told that it wasn’t supported — no custom ROMs are… neither are rooted phones… or phones that have been rooted or unlocked and reverted to stock. Period.

I brought up my concerns that a good deal of the people who have these phones got them so they could root and run custom ROMs, and that the same people are early adopters who would help with the acceptance of Google Wallet among the “general populous”. I continued that it would be wise to come up with some sort of resolution to wipe the contents of the secure element, or wipe it for future use (or when the phone is later given or sold to another person). Nothing.

I asked how many call they get on this issue: a few every day. I asked how many calls, in her opinion, she thought it would take before Google would take action to resolve the issue. She avoided the question.

I pressed, saying I’d like to be able to convey how wide-spread this issue was in my upcoming article (the one you’re reading now). I was shocked at her response:

“Have a good day. And if you use my name (in your article), I’ll come after you.” (click)

What? Had a Google employee honestly just threatened me if I mentioned he first name in an article? Yes, she had.

I called back and got the same representative, but asked to speak with her supervisor. I brought him up to speed on the issue, and said I wasn’t calling to complain about that, rather to find out if it was Google policy for their employees to threaten callers. He assured me it was not and apologized for the actions of his subordinate.

Later I got the following emails:

Email #1:

Hi Joe,

Thanks for getting in touch. We strongly discourage gaining system-level “root” access to your phone if you plan to use Google Wallet. We are unable to support devices with unauthorized operating systems as the security layers of the device may be limited.

If you have other questions, please reply to this email and I’ll be happy to help.

Regards,

(name withheld, so she won’t “come after” me)

The Google Wallet Team

Email #2:

Hi Joe,

Thank you for calling Google Wallet. You called us regarding whether a device with a customized ROM image is available for use with Google Wallet. I apologize for your inconvenience, but due to security risks, we can’t recommend using the application with a device in this state.

It appears that your phone has experienced a rare hardware error with the Secure Element that makes it incompatible with the Google Wallet mobile app. We are currently working with our hardware partner to address this particular error and we apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you. If you wish to continue using Google Wallet, we recommend contacting your phone carrier or the retailer from whom you purchased your phone to learn more about your options to remedy the issue with your device’s Secure Element.

For more information about the Secure Element and security with the Google Wallet mobile app, please visit our help center at http://support.google.com/wallet/bin/answer.py?hl=en&topic=1350361&ctx=topic&answer=1350362

Thank you for your patience with this issue. We appreciate your help as we work to improve Google Wallet.

(…)

It was a pleasure assisting you today. Feel free to contact us again if you have any additional questions regarding Google Wallet or visit our Help Center at http://www.google.com/support/wallet

Best,

Mark

The Google Wallet Team

The Really Bad News

If you get the dreaded “Secure Element not responding” error, for the time being, your only recourse is to replace your phone. The app isn’t bound to one secure element, but the secure element is apparently tied to one specific installation of the app. Once that’s severed, so is the ability to use Google Wallet with that phone.

What’s more, you can’t use your Google pre-paid credit card unless it’s through the app. So any money on the card is no longer accessible until you can get a new phone and install Google Wallet on it.

So although the app is super easy and very awesome, if you’ve rooted your phone, or are running a custom ROM, you may want to think twice about Google Wallet — or assume the risks associated with it.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video.Read more about Joe Levi here.