Google Mobile Payments: Don’t Get Too Excited Yet

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All bets are on Google launching a mobile payment platform with Sprint on Thursday, allowing people to pay for goods and services with their smartphones.

The mobile payment concept, which relies on technology called near-field communications (NFC) embedded in smartphones, has a lot of potential. In the long haul, it may eventually replace the need for credit cards. But I wouldn’t get too excited about this rumored announcement just yet — assuming that is what Google will talk about at a press event in New York on Thursday.

For starters, there’s only one Android phone on the U.S. market that supports NFC, Google’s Nexus S. To date, that phone is only available on Sprint and T-Mobile, the two smallest of the four major U.S. wireless carriers. Other phones will surely follow, but for now the potential base of Google mobile payment users is rather small.

And if Google and Sprint come together to make an announcement on Thursday, that still leaves the countless retailers who will have to install NFC kiosks at their stores to accept mobile phone payments. Bloomberg’s rumor says nothing about which retailers, if any, will be involved.

Finally, let’s not forget that we’re talking about Google here. This is a company that loves public betas and starting small. Android, for instance, launched in the U.S. with a single phone on a single carrier. It didn’t get huge until a couple years later. With NFC, Google started with a pilot program in Portland, Ore., and only with decals on store windows that people could scan for information.

So here’s my best guess on what will happen this Thursday: Google and Sprint will announce their plans for mobile payments in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., as rumored. They’ll show off the payment kiosks and demonstrate how the technology works. It’ll all be very impressive.

But after that, it’ll be up to retailers to start installing kiosks in their stores and accepting smartphone payments for real. Meanwhile, Android phone makers will have to start putting NFC capabilities in their devices. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue, but like so many others in technology, it’ll probably get solved over time. And that’s when you can start getting excited.

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