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Google Wallet Co-Founding Engineer Departs Google for Square

Apr 3 2012 (All day)

Google Wallet co-founding engineer Rob von Behren has left Google for payments startup Square, following former colleague Jonathan Wall in departing the Web giant.

Von Behren disclosed the move today in his LinkedIn profile, ending more than eight years with Google. He and Wall, who had worked on the NFC-based Google Wallet starting in 2009, left the project together in January. They had remained with the company for two to three months.

In an e-mail statement in response to a question from NFC Times, von Behren said he had not planned to leave Google.

“When I left the Google Wallet project in January, I fully expected to stop working in payments but to remain at Google,” he said. “After meeting the team at Square, however, I decided to do the opposite. Square is doing some great things in the payment space. They have a strong leadership team and a culture that fosters innovation.”

Von Behren declined to reveal his new position at Square, except to say he will help the startup expand its existing products.

Signaling a Move into NFC?
It remains to be seen whether Von Behren’s hiring is a move by the San Francisco-based startup to support NFC. Square has downplayed the importance of NFC in the past.

Square, which competes with the Google Wallet, had more than 1 million mainly small merchants signed up in the United States at the end of 2011, most using a swipe dongle on Apple and Android smartphones and on the iPad tablet. NFC is not involved in the transactions.

A relatively small percentage of the merchants, about 75,000, are onboard so far for Square’s newly renamed consumer app, “Pay with Square,” which lets users pay without swiping a card. The app, introduced last May as “Card Case,” uses geolocation to identify users. Purchases get added to the consumer’s tab and charged to a preregistered payment account. Users might verbally tell the merchant to charge their account.

U.S.-based mobile-commerce analyst and consultant Cherian Abraham believes the hiring of von Behren signals a move by Square to also support NFC.

“Else, it would be like hiring Michael Jordan to get advice on golf,” Abraham told NFC Times. “The fact that there will soon be plenty of phones touting NFC is not lost on Square. They obviously see the benefit of use cases using NFC that can simplify merchant-customer interaction.”

But he believes Square would probably use von Behren’s expertise to design a peer-to-peer payments process using NFC technology, avoiding the need for merchants to install contactless point-of-sale terminals. “Square does not believe in how NFC is used today, in card-emulation mode, further reinforcing reliance on existing payment rails,” he said.

All told, Square is reportedly recording $4 billion worth of mobile transactions per year.

Internal Disagreements
Google Wallet, which launched last September, also faces competition in the budding mobile-payments market from PayPal and the U.S. carrier-led Isis joint venture, the latter planning to launch its NFC wallet this summer.

As NFC Times reported last month, the Google Wallet program has been marked by internal disagreements between wallet chief Osama Bedier and some wallet staffers. Several have left the program, either because of philosophical differences with Bedier and Google’s approach to the wallet or because of a reorganization in response to what appears to be a struggling initiative.

Von Behren’s departure from Google follows that of two other key former Google Wallet staffers, co-founding engineer Wall and product lead Marc Freed-Finnegan. They left March 5 to start their own mobile-commerce venture, Tappmo, which is still in the development phase.

Like Google Wallet, Tappmo will focus on offline mobile commerce and shopping, including payment. But the founders of the venture aren’t revealing many details.

Besides the co-founding engineers and Freed-Finnegan, Andrew Zaeske, former director of engineering for the wallet, is said to have left the project in January. Some project managers also left and Vikas Gupta, who served as a head of consumer payments or commerce after Google acquired his company, Social Gold, in 2010, has also left the company. Bedier is said to have taken over more control of the wallet from Stephanie Tilenius, vice president of commerce.

UPDATE: A Google spokesman, when asked for comment by NFC Times on von Behren's exit from the company and the other wallet staff departures, would only say that “Rob made great contributions to Google; we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.” END UPDATE.

Sources have told NFC Times that the Google Wallet team was split over strategy for the NFC wallet, which appears to be struggling to sign up new partners, including banks, operators, merchants and handset vendors. Google also hasn’t released transaction figures, but they are said to be low.

One of the chief issues creating the rift appears to be how open the wallet would be to app developers and service providers. That, along with some other differences on strategy, put some long-standing members of the Google Wallet team, who had argued for more openness, at odds with vice president of payments and wallet head Bedier.

Bedier joined Google from PayPal in February of 2011 and took substantive control over a program that had already been in development for two years. Many of his decisions apparently did not sit well with resident wallet team members. 

Bedier, during a presentation at a session of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, made no mention of problems within the wallet program. He said Google’s operator partner Sprint will introduce more than 10 additional NFC phones supporting the wallet this year, and said the company was having “conversations” with other mobile operators, along with handset makers and merchants, as it seeks to expand the reach of the wallet. He offered few specifics, however.

UPDATE: Bedier late Monday local time announced in a blog post that Google had purchased New York-based TxVia, which provides a payments platform for processing a range of prepaid cards, including general purpose and gift cards, as well as payroll and government disbursement cards. 

It's not clear if the acquisition has a bearing on the NFC part of the Google Wallet. Bedier did not reveal many details. But he did say the company, which Google has been working with over the past year, has connections with the major payment networks and could complement Google's payments capabilities and accelerate innovation toward the “full Google Wallet vision.” END UPDATE.

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