Google has finally unveiled their redesigned NFC payment app today, aptly named Android Pay. As someone who has been using NFC payments since 2011 I was excited to see what Google had done to make Android Pay stand out against the competition, specifically Apple Pay. Instead I was greeted with one of the worst smartphone app launches that I can remember. For the people that can actually get the app installed and running, it seems it is an incomplete mess that was rushed to the Play Store. The majority of users, however, can’t even open the app to see what it looks like. The worst offense is that Android Pay replaces an app that featured the same functions and worked for most users.
So let’s look at events chronologically. Google Wallet was unveiled in 2011 and featured two functions. Primarily it allowed users to store money in a digital wallet and transfer money to any other Google Wallet user. In this regard it functioned similarly to PayPal. The other feature was NFC payment and Credit, Debit, and Loyalty card digital storage. For those who are unfamiliar with this terminology, it simply means that you can enter in the information for any Debit or Credit card and use those cards to pay for goods or services at the “Tap to Pay” credit card machines. You could also enter the information of any membership card instead of carrying around an entire keyring of them. Usually, Google Wallet would show the barcode of the one you needed and the clerk/cashier would scan your phone screen instead of the physical card. Now here was some of the genius behind Google Wallet. It used a virtual Mastercard card to make the payment and simply took the funds from whatever card you had told it to pay with. It is this reason that Google Wallet allowed any card to be used regardless of issuer. While this had the unfortunate side effect of not relaying any purchase data to your bank — transactions simply showed up as “GOOGLE WALLET Order#XXXX” — it did allow any card to work in tandem with Google Wallet.
The very first apk of Android Pay was released to the internet on September 10th and it had two interesting requirements about it. First, it required the device to be running at least Android 4.4 KitKat. Second, it required the new version of Google Play Services, specifically 8.1.X (which hadn’t been released at the time). This was where some of the first issues started to pop up with Android Pay. Google Play Services has several apks for each version based on Android version, CPU, and DPI. Android Lollipop had always used the code 4XX — where the second and third digit were used for the CPU and the DPI. As of Google Play Services 8.0., Lollipop had been shifted to 2XX and Android M had been assigned 4XX. This led many users to install Google Play Services for Android M onto their Lollipop devices which in turn cluttered up the comments with issues unrelated to Android Pay at all. Even after users installed the correct version of Google Play Services, however, the issues persisted. “Sorry, a network error has occured,” “Google is unable to verify that your device or the software running on it is Android compatible,” and “Unfortunately, Google play services has stopped” where all common, yet vague, errors being produced. Several theories were circulated such as needing to be completely stock, requiring a locked bootloader, and making sure the device was unrooted. No method was ever 100% though so many of us simply believed the app still needed some bugs squashed and waited for it to officially hit the Play Store.
That same day, Google Wallet (New) — yes, that is the app’s, still current, official name — was released to the Play Store. It features all of the digital wallet and money sending features of the original Google Wallet with a new UI and without the NFC payment aspect. So, at the time, we had two apps in the Play Store with the same name but one said “New” and had less features than the old one. I’m not sure who at Google thought this wasn’t going to be confusing but the average users have been quite vocal about it. Yesterday the original Google Wallet app was replaced with Android Pay and, subsequently, all devices with Google Wallet had that app replaced with Android Pay. It doesn’t take too long to see that the app still wasn’t ready for launch.
At this time, the Play Store reports that none of my seven devices are compatible with the app. This includes a Nexus 7 tablet and a Galaxy S3, both running Android 5.1.1. Sideloading the app results in the same error messages I was receiving with the initial apk release. As seen in the screenshots above, I am not the only user experiencing either of these two issues. Several users are reporting that Google Wallet worked fine but now they have an unsupported device. The few that are lucky enough to install the device are given errors as to why the app won’t open. Still, there are some users who have been able to use the app without any issues and somehow Google found a way to upset these users as well. Where as Google Wallet used a PIN to access the app, Android Pay requires the device to use a lock screen with PIN security. Google has responded saying the reason for this is because users with a PIN lock screen were frustrated at having to enter two pins to use the NFC payment of the original Google Wallet, one to unlock the phone and one to unlock the wallet. The odd part is that a user can’t use any other form of security for the lock screen, not even fingerprint. It’s as if Google said, “Yes, we included many security options into Android but the PIN is the only one we feel secure enough using to protect your money.” Which is odd as I always felt that a 4-digit password wasn’t very secure at all, especially with the plethora of methods to circumvent lock screen security. I fail to see why the geniuses at Google couldn’t have put in a simple check to see if your device uses a PIN for the lock screen security. If it doesn’t then Android Pay would force the user to set a PIN for the app itself. That way every user could customize the Android Pay unlocking experience to their own liking. The second problem with Android Pay is the lack of a digital credit card on the backend. This requires that each card issuer support Android Pay. Currently it only works with ten banks. Capital One is listed as coming soon and Chase Bank, as popular as they are, isn’t even supported yet. The worst part is that the only credit union is Navy Federal and I don’t see that changing for quite some time, especially for the smaller, local credit unions. This is the category that I fall under and I’m not too optimistic of that changing any time soon as there is little incentive for these smaller banks to work with Android Pay. Luckily, any card that was added under the original Google Wallet will get grandfathered into Android Pay using a digital Bancorp card backend, but there isn’t any timeframe as to how long this will stay in effect. Eventually Android Pay will phase this out and only use cards from accepted banks.
So let’s go over everything again. Google Wallet worked on Android versions as old as Ice Cream Sandwich, accepted any credit card, utilized an app specific PIN, and had the added benefit of allowing the user to transfer funds. Android Pay requires at least Android KitKat, only works with a small number of accepted banks, forces me to alter how I unlock my device, and requires a separate app to be installed if the user wants to send or receive funds from other users. I am failing to see how Android Pay is, in any way, superior to Google Wallet. Unfortunately, not much of this is fixable. Google could incorporate the PIN fix I mentioned above but that is really it. I have no idea why the newer version of Android is required so I can’t make a comment about if the new API is really needed or if Google is just pushing to sell newer hardware. The choice to work with banks instead of using a digital card backend is actually better for the users, since they will see actual purchase data in their card’s transaction history, but the list of acceptable banks is too shallow now for this to be considered an upgrade. At this very moment, Wallet works perfectly for me and Android Pay won’t even open. Wallet supports my debit card and Android Pay has a time limit on how long it will support it. It is a downgrade in every aspect, and that is ignoring all of the bugs and issues that keeping users out of the app. Knowing Google they will bounce back from this fiasco but I worry that they are falling into the same patterns of other large companies. Rushed products are becoming more prevalent and Google was one of the last companies that seemed to take pride in releasing products only when they were ready. Hopefully this is a single misstep for Google and they learn from this experience. Otherwise historians will refer to the new Google logo and the launch of Android Pay as Google’s fall from grace.