Google Wallet goes live in the US

Google has finally given Nexus S owners a reason to use their near-field communications chips: the formal - if small-scale - launch of the Google Wallet mobile payment system.

The fact that Google has been working on a mobile tap-and-pay extension to its existing Google Checkout service is no secret. The instant Google confirmed that its Samsung-manufactured Nexus S flagship handset would include NFC technology, pundits were pointing to a mobile payment plan for the company.

Google itself has even confirmed that it was working on such a product, running small-scale trials to get the service - which allows users to make small payments simply by waving their smartphones at a compatible reader built into the payment terminal - working just so.

In the time that Google has been working out the kinks, however, others have come to market with a fully-featured product. Mobile giant Orange, as but one example, has used a Samsung handset and Barclaycard's contactless know-how to launch Quick Tap, while O2, Vodafone, and Everything Everywhere have joined forces to bring their own NFC-powered payment platform to fruition.

Despite not being first to market, Google's Wallet service seems sound enough: in partnership with MasterCard and Visa, owners of the Sprint-specific Nexus S 4G - we told you it was a small-scale launch - will be able to pay at any PayPass terminal in the US.

"I’m really excited about taking another step closer to a future where using your portable device to instantly pay is as easy, convenient, and commonplace as making a call from anywhere in the world," said tech-hack-turned-paid-Mastercard-spinner Ryan Block of the launch, in which the company is offering those who sign up a $10 credit on their Google Prepaid MasterCard as an incentive.

Initial indications are that the system works well, although the limited card support - the Google Prepaid MasterCard and the Citi-MasterCard are valid now, with Visa support coming soon - irks some would-be mobile payment makers.

Perhaps the biggest feature isn't the mobile payment tech itself, however, but a service called SingleTap. Put simply, SingleTap combines the functionality of a coupon, loyalty card, and payment method in one: swipe your phone, and any applicable coupons or vouchers will be deducted from the price, while the purchase is tracked on your loyalty card and the payment taken from your Google Wallet-registered credit card.

It's a system which makes things more convenient for consumers, but also holds a great deal of promise for companies themselves: loyalty schemes give you a wealth of valuable information on your customers' habits, but convincing people to use their loyalty card - which is frequently forgotten or lost - for every transaction can be an uphill struggle. By bundling it in with the payment method, the hit rate will likely skyrocket.

Security remains a concern with contactless payment systems, despite per-transaction limits, but Google has worked hard to ensure it's a non-issue. The service only works while the smartphone is powered up and unlocked, and requires a security code to be entered if it hasn't been used for a certain period of time. A security layer called Secure Element helps keep things safe, with Google hoping to get the technology accepted as a de facto standard in the burgeoning NFC payment space.

Sadly, all we get to do here in the UK is read about the service, with both Google and its partners silent on the matter of when we might get a chance to make some NFC payments of our own. While we wait, here's a relentlessly happy video espousing the benefits of Google Wallet from the company itself.